With her new directorial effort, Love After Love, Ann Hui — the first female director who has received a lifetime award at the Venice International Film Festival — is at the center of a controversy.
The film, adapted from writer Elieen Chang's first published short story, Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, was released across Chinese mainland on Oct 22.
Despite gathering a stellar crew including cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a seven-time Hong Kong Film Awards winner, and Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the film has received a lot of mixed reviews with the criticism majorly focused on casting.
Set in Hong Kong in late 1930s, the tale recounts that Ma, a high-school student from Shanghai, who visits her widowed aunt — a tycoon's wealthy concubine — to ask for support for her education. Seduced by the luxurious lifestyle and falling for a playboy portrayed by Peng, the young woman finally surrenders herself to corruption.
The original tale depicts Ma's character as a slender woman with a "flat and beautiful face" whose eyes are long and lovable, and Peng's role as a bloodless-skinned mixed-race philander whose lips are as pale as a plaster statue. However, unsatisfied book fans think both Ma and Peng's appearance and temperament do not match the depictions.
Describing herself as a "non-sensitive" person, Hui sincerely says she hadn't estimated that the casting controversy, which started as early as mid-2019 when the cast was announced, would ferment to such an extent.
"I have never wanted to tell an audience how to watch a film, but I still feel a bit surprised to read these comments," says Hui, wearing her trademark black-rimmed glasses.
"I think Eddie Peng is quite similar to George, his character. According to my impression shaped from reading Chang's original tale, George is not weak and sort of sensitive. As Peng grew up overseas, his gesture and personality fit my imagination about the role," explains Hui.
"I chose Ma because I'm very impressed with her film Soul Mate. She perfectly renders how a young woman crazily falls in love. Besides, Ma's appearance — if admiring from a certain angle — reminds me of some foreign movie stars in 1940s, such as Ingrid Bergman," adds the director.
Love After Love marks Hui's third time to direct a film adapted from Chang's novels, after Love in A Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997).
With an in-depth look examining the complexity of humanity, especially deeply reflecting upon urban women's inner struggle, Chang's novels have accumulated a huge fan base, but her works are also widely regarded as being difficult for cinematic adaptation, due to the complicated conversation and dull tone.
Clearly realizing the difficulty to adapt a Chang's work, Hui initially decided to just serve as the executive producer on the film, but she was convinced to helm the project by Blue Bird Film, a Shanghai-based studio founded by Hui's revered actress Hsia Meng. A legend in Hong Kong cinema, Meng had wished to shoot the film before she passed away in 2016.
Besides, Hui has been fond of the novel since she was young. When Hui was working for Radio Television Hong Kong in 1978, she stumbled upon Chang's The First Brazier, which was published in a collection of short tales and novellas, for the first time.
Recalling her obsession of the tale, Hui says she was then mostly fascinated with the vivid depiction of then-iconic sceneries of Hong Kong, from billionaires' residences on the Victoria Peak to The University of Hong Kong.
"But the romances under Chang's pen are mostly extremely realistic and a bit brutal, making most of her stories featuring a sense of tragedy," comments Hui.
Hui says the 1984 movie Love in A Fallen City's protagonist, a woman suffering from prejudice after filing a divorce, calculates on what benefits she could get with her new romance. "In Love After Love, the dissection of human nature is more profound. The protagonist falls for an unworthy man and pays a high price for that," says Hui.
With her own understanding of the story, Hui started the preparation in 2017, inviting veteran writer Wang Anyi to pen the script in 2018 before selecting four cities - Xiamen in Fujian province, Changzhou in Jiangsu province, Shanghai and Hong Kong, for shooting, which was conducted between May 21 and Aug 7 in 2019.
After wrapping up the film's voiceover work between January and September last year, Hui took the film to the 77th Venice International Film Festival, where she received the highest honor in her life.
Recalling that most industry fellows were feeling down during that period because of the epidemic, Hui says she was excited to get the award, deeming it as an auspicious sign. "I didn't expect to receive such a high honor. I will continue directing," she says.
With a directorial career spanning more than 40 years, Hui has made a string of critically acclaimed features such as Summer Snow (1995) and A Simple Life (2012), but mixed reviews about her latest directorial effort have given her pause for thought.
Admitting that she has yet to catch up with the digital world, exemplified by the fact that she rarely hails a taxi via apps or goes shopping online, Hui says the recent online controversy will propel her to be more cautious and caring about audience's "requirements" in a project's early phase, avoiding a potential loss at the box office.
In spite of online buzz, the film has currently grossed more than 50 million yuan ($7.82 million), a not-so-bad market performance for an artistic feature.
Now engaged in a short film tailored for a streaming site, Hui says she has also tried to maintain an optimistic and positive mood.
"The good thing about getting older is that you won't have too many things with which to be concerned. I'm not an ambitious person. Working as a director is a grace that makes me capable to express some of my views. I appreciate that," says Hui, wearing a big smile.
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