Song of the Exile
Border-crossing melodrama

by Tony Williams

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 94-100
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

Hong Kong has now lost its status as a British Colony and returned to Mainland China, an event depicted in several ways in Hong Kong Cinema since negotiations began in September, 1982, between Margaret Thatcher and Beijing authorities. Scholars of Chinese cinema such as Esther Yau note that a future anterior time mode conditions many films produced between 1982 and 1992 where "return to the motherland" often appears, inflected by various moods of hesitation, resignation, passivity, and fear.[1][open notes in new window] But if the Tiananmen-Square-influenced, apocalyptic, doom-laden scenarios of John Woo's A BULLET IN THE HEAD (1986), HARD BOILED (1992), Tsui Hark's A BETTER TOMORROW 3 (1989), Mak Kit-Tai's WICKED CITY (1992), and Ringo Lam's BURNING PARADISE (1994) have not yet materialized, other films made before July 1, 1997, depict the return in a muted foreboding manner, using other genres far removed from these action and science-fiction films making explicit reference to reunification.

Ann Hui's SONG OF THE EXILE(1992) offers a melodramatic depiction of this foreboding. The film unites the political and the personal in a unique synthesis of history and fictionalized autobiography. Born in Manchuria during 1948 like her fictional protagonist Hueyin (played by Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), Ann Hui On-wah is the daughter of a Japanese mother and Chinese father. After she graduated from film school in London, she returned to Hong Kong in 1973 and worked as assistant to the late Taiwanese film director King Hu, who made significant contributions to the first New Wave of Hong Kong Cinema such as COME DRINK WITH ME (1965), DRAGON GATE IN (1966), A TOUCH OF ZEN (1968-70), THE FATE OF LEE KAHN (1970-1973) and THE VALIANT ONES (1974). Hui later became a director of television dramas and documentaries at Hong Kong's TVB, where she worked alongside other future talents of the second New Wave of Kong Cinema.

In 1977, Hui directed six episodes for the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a body set up to combat Triad bribery of Chinese and British police officers[2]. This investigation into police corruption became a cause celebre in contemporary Hong Kong society. The same scandal would receive cinematic treatment in Ng See-Yuen's ANTI-CORRUPTION (1975), David Lam's FIRST SHOT (1992), as well as significant citation in SONG OF THE EXILE. Hui's uncompromising attitudes on two of these episodes, THE MEN and THE INVESTIGATORS, led to their withdrawal from public broadcasting. They have never been shown publicly again.[3] After shooting her first feature, THE SECRET (1979), partly inspired by Roman Polanski's THE TENANT, and a popular ghost comedy, THE SPOOKY BUNCH (1980), Hui refused to follow the commercial path of most of her contemporaries. She chose instead to concentrate on more realistic and melodramatic subjects often involving family relationships between different generations such as MY AMERICAN GRANDSON (1991) and SUMMER SNOW (1995) which won retired veteran Hong Kong actress, Josephine Siao Fongfong, the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Hui's third film, THE STORY OF WOO VIET (1981) featured future John Woo star, Chow Yun-fat in his first serious role. It dealt with the plight of Vietnamese boat people and the theme of exile, a motif followed up in BOAT PEOPLE (1982).

Although Viet Nam is absent in SONG OF THE EXILE, the film is commonly viewed as the final part of Hui's "Boat People" trilogy. Many Hong Kong films used Viet Nam as an allegorical representation of what might occur on July 1997. Other Ann Hui films often deal with transnational and trans-historical issues. In 1987, she directed THE ROMANCE OF BOOK AND SWORD in China, an adaptation of a Jin Yong story about a Manchu emperor and his unacknowledged brother. Anticipating certain themes in SONG OF THE EXILE, the plot involves the revelation that the emperor is really Han and not Manchurian. Hui also directed the sequel, PRINCESS FRAGRANCE, in the same year. During 1994, Hui returned to China to act as co-producer on Yim Ho's THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD, a bleak, naturalistic drama dealing with a son's conflicts with his parents and his ambivalent feelings towards a mother who may have murdered his father.

After completing Michelle Yeoh's last Hong Kong film, STUNTWOMAN AH KAM in 1996, Hui then directed three films in 1997 which further developed her interest in Chinese national identity. Like her earlier LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY (1984), EIGHTEEN SPRINGS is based on the work of thirties and forties Shanghai novelist, Eileen Chang. Chang became a figure of controversy in China after World War Two because of accusations made against her husband over collaboration with the Japanese occupying forces. Like SONG OF THE EXILE, EIGHTEEN SPRINGS uses cinematic melodramatic devices to analyze social and historical forces affecting the reconstruction of female identity in a changing era. Originally made for Hong Kong television, PERSONAL MEMOIR OF HONG KONG: AS TIME GOES BY, reveals Hui's functioning as actor, director, producer, and scenarist in a cinematic essay about growing up in Hong Kong. She brings together several friends from university days (including Democratic Party activist Margaret Ng) to examine key issues dealing with Hong Kong's colonial history. One scene involves Hui's discussing her own family history with her mother and its relation to SONG OF THE EXILE.

SONG OF THE EXILE eschews the violent realistic imagery of THE STORY OF WOO VIET and BOAT PEOPLE for a more subdued melodramatic treatment of an allegory of reunification, which in the film is depicted through the protagonist Hueyin's relationship to her mother and grandparents. As Patricia Brett Erens has pointed out, the film parallels mother-daughter treatments common in traditional literary and cinematic melodramas.[4] However, although SONG OF THE EXILE contains several parallels to Western melodrama, there are distinctive Chinese cultural traditions which influence Hui's particular treatment of this script by Wu Nien-Jen (who has collaborated with leading Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao Hsiu, on several films). In fact, melodrama has a long history in both Chinese literature and film.[5]

Film critics such as Nick Browne, Jane Gaines and Chuck Kleinhans, argue that ethnic and national melodramas require more than dominant critical interpretations of the genre, usually focusing on the individual and familial realms.[6] Browne comments that Western-influenced melodramatic theories which privilege the nuclear family and psychoanalytical interpretations of sexual difference and subjectivity often lose sight of broader cultural and social meanings. If we look at SONG OF THE EXILE in this regard, we see that the character Hueyin's sexual subjectivity plays little, if any, role in the plot; rather, the film emphasizes cultural, historical, and political factors. Hui's melodramatic treatment may actually parallel the treatment of the genre which Browne finds in the films of Xie Jin. Here, Browne says, the Chinese melodramatic imagination contains a

"mode in which gender as a mark of difference is a limited, mobile term activated by distinctive social powers and historical circumstances."[7]

Despite Hui's stated reservations concerning Chinese post-reunification censorship and her deliberate allegorical policy of casting mainland Chinese actors as brutal Vietnamese communists in BOAT PEOPLE, she was allowed back into China to shoot THE ROMANCE OF BOOK AND SWORD (1987) and function later as co-producer on Yim Ho's, THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD (1994).

In addition to using melodrama for social and political commentary, SONG OF THE EXILE also deals with a contemporary Hong Kong cinematic movement of "border crossing." Border-crossing films, according to Esther Yau, depict

"complex dynamics and symbolic structures that mark the cultural repositioning of a population whose ambivalence toward the colonial administration is accompanied by nationalistic sentiments toward China."[8]

Yau writes about two films — Johnny Mak's LONG ARM OF THE LAW and Yim Ho's HOMECOMING (both 1984) — which depict local Hong Kong sensibilities regarding the expected reunification "as both appalling and rejuvenating." These two films, Yau says, mark the range of local sensibilities regarding the future return to China in terms of anxiety and discontent as well as nostalgia.[9] SONG OF THE EXILE contributes to this "border crossing" movement in that it contains the same ambivalence and syncretism characteristic of 80s Hong Kong Cinema. But SONG OF THE EXILE also operates on a much more complex level of hesitation. Like most Hong Kong films, it avoids direct representation of political issues, choosing instead to focus upon personal family dilemmas which are also inextricably bound up with cultural, historical, and political factors.

SONG OF THE EXILE's credits open against a white background. A leaf appears in blurred focus on the screen. The image then changes to another blurred shot, calling into question audience perception. The chimes of Big Ben begin and various indistinct sounds (including a military hand) slowly become audible before the image focuses on bicycle wheels. Such a blend of images and use of blurred focus suggest Hui's technique. Hueyin has only a blurred perception of reality in England before she has to confront a more complex historical version of her identity and nationality. Movement begins on screen. Hueyin and two English friends cycle the Thames Embankment while we hear the off-screen sound of a busker singing Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."

Hui's choice of music does more than merely depict "swinging London."[10] Dylan's song is about surrender as well as freedom ("I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for a fade"); it anticipates Hueyin's eventual surrender to accepting the complicated nature of her national identity. Dylan's song also questions the escapist nature of the freedom which the protagonist has had in swinging London, and it serves as a thematic counterpoint to Hueyin's desire to isolate herself from formative cultural and family ties which define her very personality.

The line, "I know that evening's empire has returned into sand and vanished from my hand," functions as indirect political commentary, escaping the notice of Hong Kong censors. As used by Hui, it may well refer to the redundant British Empire ready to cede the last remaining jewel in its crown of imperialist exploitation back to mainland China. SONG OF THE EXILE appeared when anxieties were at their height over Hong Kong's return to a China tarnished by the Tiananmen Square massacre. When we eventually see the Dylan-singing busker, he is playing outside the British Museum. Historically, this museum is the center of loot stolen from defeated cultures throughout the history of the British Empire (such as the Elgin Marbles which Tony Blair's Thatcherite New Labour government has refused to return to its rightful owners). Hui's choice of location is significant, especially when coupled with Hueyin's voice over: "I lived happily then." Graduating from a London university at the age of 25, Hueyin says she knew of the Viet Nam War and East-West tensions only from television newsreels. "For me life started then."

Although seemingly happy with her English girlfriends, Hueyin is an exile. Individual shots show her alone in a nightclub or framed alone in corridors and doorways which anticipate the film's later employment of Fassbinder-Sirk-style mise-en-scene depicting her similarly isolated mother during the mother's lonely life with Chinese in-laws in Macao. Although Hui is familiar with these other national cinematic melodramatic traditions, she employs them here in a subdued manner, preferring visual understatement to the typical melodramatic visual excess employed by Fassbinder and Sirk. Hui avoids primary color motifs common to many western melodramatic films and evokes instead somber, often shadowy, imagery. This treatment reinforces imagery common to certain Chinese melodramas, where individual and family problems are often shaped by and even subordinate to relevant class, social and historical forces and events, factors usually marginalized in their western melodramatic counterparts.

Although Hueyin believes herself free and adopts Western hairstyle and clothing, she is also her mother's daughter, even in swinging London, especially in terms of isolation from her surroundings. When the women return to their college dormitory, Hueyin discovers that her English friend has an interview with the BBC while she receives a rejection letter. This belongs to the time before the BBC employed ethnic newscasters such as Moira Stewart (a black Scottish women who spoke in impeccable upper-class tones for "appropriate cultural representation"). This rejection letter is possibly Hueyin's first experience of institutional British racism. When Hueyin grooms her friend, Tracy, for the interview, the latter welcomes an offer of jewelry in unmistakable orientalist discourse.

"There's something mysterious and oriental about it. Do you think it will bring me luck?"

The dormitory sequence thus illustrates both the direct and the more subtle racism that would shape Hueyin's life there had she stayed.

Hueyin receives a phone call from her younger sister Huewei asking her to return home for the sister's wedding before Huewei emigrates to Canada. Although she initially refuses due to her desire to apply for British media jobs, Hueyin returns to Hong Kong to confront her mother Aiko Kwei-tzu (played by Japanese-speaking Taiwanese actress Shwu Fenchen) whom she has not seen for many years.

Aiko immediately begins dominating Hueyin, forcing her to wear a traditional red dress for the wedding and insisting she cut her long hair and have a perm. At this point, SONG OF THE EXILE appears to verge into familiar melodramatic patterns of combative mother-daughter relationships seen in western representations such as IMITATION OF LIFE, MILDRED PIERCE and NOW VOYAGER. But Hui will craft a much broader ethnic, historical, and political canvas to delineate the social, historical factors influencing the domestic and individual conflicts Hueyin and her mother face in the film.

The initial relationship between mother and daughter is one of alienation. It is less domestic than based upon cultural misunderstanding. In fact, it as false as the NBC exclusive report about the Cultural Revolution in the Canton region of Guangzhou, which Hueyin watches on television in Hong Kong in her mother's apartment. The U.S. commentator describes the "changeless misery" of the Chinese situation. The news report stereotypically interprets the turbulent events of the 70s as one more chapter in the history of a miserable Asia. Personally isolated from a mother who dotes upon her younger sister, Hueyin believes her domestic relations are as unchangeably miserable and eternal as the generalized NBC description of the Cultural Revolution.

Upon reuniting with her mother and sister, Hueyin thinks in individualist Western terms, which presume the "natural" separation of mother and daughter. There is a long flashback of her memories of the past, seeing her mother as a "silent and reserved person" when they lived with her paternal grandparents in Macao, a Portuguese colony. In this sequence, where she appears as a little girl, Hueyin relates more to her grandparents than to Aiko, who appears as an isolated silent figure here. Grandmother openly criticizes Aiko in front of the older woman's friends for serving cold food and usurps her maternal authority over the child. She does not understand her daughter-in-law's cultural adherence to Japanese mores of silence and reservation before her in-laws. With a social conscience, Grandfather (Tien Feng) teaches Hueyin traditional Chinese folk songs and urges on her the necessity of "serving the people." He suggests she follow a future career as a doctor, following the example of Sun Yat-Sen. Hueyin thus clings to her nostalgic first memories of her close bonding with grandparents rather than to her mother, Aiko.

This poignant flashback, however, is not reliably "true." It contains several contradictions which later become explicit. Hueyin's grandparents are exiles, as is she throughout the entire film. They live in Macao because conditions in mainland China are not safe for their return. Although grandfather idealistically speaks about "serving the people," he also refers to the fact that Sun Yat-Sen's political successors did not continue this noble tradition. Furthermore, despite emphasizing Chinese ideals, grandfather once wanted to become a western-style doctor. But his father forced him instead to study traditional Chinese medicine. And although Hueyin's grandparents dote on the little girl, traditional Chinese family life does not seem ideal. Even before we learn about Aiko's nationality, the way the grandmother demeans her daughter-in-law and the coercion the grandfather faced in terms of a career suggest problems with the Chinese identity that the small child enthusiastically embraced.

While Hueyin may believe, "I lived happily then" (as her first voice over lines in the British scenes state), her feelings rest on blurred illusions which need refocusing as pointed to in the first post-credits shot. In this film, as Akbar Abbas points out, the narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks which initially appear contradictory but which eventually force both Hueyin and the viewer to reevaluate memory and experience. For Hueyin, such a reworking of her memories leads to personal reconciliation and historical understanding.[11]

Alienation increases between mother and daughter. Hueyin recalls an unhappy memory from Macao when Aiko cut her hair and unsuccessfully attempted to make her wear a Japanese-styled school uniform. Now the daughter has to submit to a perm according to maternal demand and act the role of traditional dutiful daughter at the wedding ceremony. The following evening Aiko watches a television report about the Cultural Revolution; that event's political turmoil between generations parallels the domestic tensions. Hueyin says she wants to return to London and again denies the relevance of these historical events to her own situation:

"I'm so tired of all these riots and wars."

Following an argument with her daughter, Aiko announces she wants to return home to Japan and die there alone. In fact Aiko had been abandoned by her daughter before. After the mother makes an unsuccessful attempt to phone her brother in Japan, Hueyin remembers the time when her father Cheung (Waise Lee) returned to Macao to take his family to Hong Kong since Aiko had found life unbearable with the Chinese in-laws. In that flashback, little Hueyin refuses to leave her grandparents. A bird's-eye shot shows Cheung and Aiko driving away from Macao while grandfather and the little girl stand at the window and he has to move Hueyin's reluctant hand in a farewell wave. The scene changes to show Cheung and Aiko on the Macao ferry to Hong Kong. However, Hui uses a shot of the sea not only to make a time transition into the next scene but to compare Aiko's feelings of abandonment by her daughter to the daughter's later feelings of abandonment by her grandparents after they chose to return to mainland China in 1963 — in "hopes of serving the people." As with Aiko, historical factors resulted in the teenage Hueyin's new exile.

In a flashback, we see the adolescent Hueyin similarly isolated in her Hong Kong school as she will later be in London. She entered boarding school because of a quarrel with her family, due to a bitter cultural misunderstanding about her family's "new" ways. Watching Aiko play mah-jong with friends who care little about traditional Chinese female duties, she resents the fact that father expects her as daughter to cook the family meal while allowing his wife to life a life of indolence. For Hueyin, the last straw involves a family visit to the cinema. Rather than seeing the daughter's choice, WEST SIDE STORY, Cheung complies with Aiko's wish to see THE SEVEN SAMURAI, starring her favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. Hueyin's refusal to go to the movies leads to a family quarrel and her desire to attend boarding school.

Later that evening, Cheung tells Hueyin an important fact which the teenager had not realized before — that her mother is Japanese. He speaks of the hard time Aiko had living in Macao, unable to speak a word of Chinese. Cheung obviously has decided to indulge his wife in compensation for the miserable existence she endured in Macao. Cultural and historical factors also influence these family tensions. Cheung informs Hueyin that he met Aiko in Manchuria at the end of the war. Thus, the traumatic nature of Sino-Japanese relations, a frequent motif in 60s and 70s Hong Kong Cinema, also influenced the way his traditional Chinese parents treated Aiko.

Hueyin now decides to accompany her mother to Japan. Like Hueyin's grandparents' idealization of China, Aiko also idealizes the country she has been exiled from. When Aiko meets her brother at the station and the two speak in Japanese, Hueyin ironically finds herself in a situation similar to her mother's in Macao since Hueyin can not speak a word of Japanese. When she asks Aiko to translate the initial conversation she has with her uncle, mother demurs:

AIKO. Life in a foreign country is hard.
UNCLE. Yes (non-commitedly).
HUEYIN. What did Uncle say?
AIKO. He admires me.

However, Aiko allows her idealistic feelings to blur her perceptions of her family's changed circumstances. Like Hueyin's grandfather, Aiko, at first, wishes to cling to a past which is no longer relevant. She refuses to allow her brother to sell a family home and refuses to see their point of view, their desire to move to Tokyo to be near grandchildren. Aiko soon finds out that not only is the past a forgotten country but it is often a realm colored by illusion. She meets her old schoolteacher whose son died in the war. Schoolteacher tells Aiko that she hardly spoke to him when he was alive. But she now converses with his photograph day and night and takes solace in her substitute family of three cats. Aiko also wishes to see the younger brother she once doted on but now finds he's an ex-kamikaze pilot bitterly living in the past; he considers her a "disloyal" woman and refuses to see her.

Aiko now agrees to sell the family home, and she also expresses openly her family pride in her daughter Hueyin. In their last evening before departing Aiko bids farewell to her family shrine speaking in Cantonese for her daughter's benefit rather than in the Japanese she used for her first visit there. Both mother and daughter become closer having experienced new ways of understanding, and they come to terms with their personal exile which separated them for so long.

Earlier, the film showed the daughter's experience of Japan when on her own. Hueyin wandered out into the country and was chased by a farmer, who warns her in Japanese not to eat the insecticide-sprayed tomato she has picked up. Hueyin attempts to speak to the farmer in English, a language he does not understand. The scene ends positively when the villagers bring her to the local schoolteacher who can speak English.

Although this sequence appears forced, it is integral to SONG OF THE EXILE. The villagers initially think Hueyin is Japanese. Believing her to be a visitor from Hawaii, they respond in the odd English phrases they have picked up over the years. "How are you?" "Hawaii?" When they discover she is Chinese, they ask, "What would a Chinese be doing here?" The scene then switches to an abrupt memory flashback in which Hueyin now understands the miserable nature of the existence Aiko had in Macao as a Japanese woman living there soon after the war. She remembers herself as a little girl, watching grandmother criticize Aiko in front of Cheung as being "cranky" and choosing to "hide in her room." The image returns to the present as the schoolteacher helps Hueyin to communicate, leading to reconciliation and friendship unlike the results of miscommunication in the past.

The sequence is idealized in terms of depicting an eventual understanding between historically-affected members of different races. But, as well as showing Hueyin's eventual understanding of Aiko's early cultural isolation which leads to closeness between then, it also reveals a Japanese country village where people understand the wider implications of a global community even when they do not speak the language. Unlike Hueyin's grandparents and uncle, the village community is not xenophobic. After an initial misunderstanding, they try to break down the cultural and linguistic barriers separating them from Hueyin. The comic village sequence foreshadows the more emotional rapprochement between Hueyin and Aiko. Mother and daughter have identities resulting from cultural, historical, and political forces which they must come to terms with. In this way, SONG OF THE EXILE certainly extends the melodramatic imagination beyond the individual and domestic to a larger historical realm.

In their final night at the Japanese family's bathhouse, Aiko now sees problems within a culture she formerly idealized. She speaks fondly of Hong Kong values and yearns, "Oh, for a bowl of hot soup!" as opposed to cold Japanese cuisine. When mother and daughter look out at an ocean liner at night, symbolizing their return to Hong Kong, the sequence begins with the camera turning in a semicircle from their backs to frame both in mid-close up. It introduces Aiko's memory of meeting Cheung in 1945 Manchuria. The sequence ends with the camera reversing its direction as if visually reinforcing Aiko's lines, "At every turn life has been different." She comes to terms with past and present, recognizing the complex nature of her own personal exile.

In Hong Kong, Hueyin is now working as a television producer in TVB. She edits documentary shots of the anticorruption demonstrations in Hong Kong society during 1973-1974, a sequence having deep significance for Hong Kong residents. During 1973, Hong Kong society was rocked by the revelation that many cops, including Chief Superintendent Peter Godber, were taking bribes from the Triads. This led to one of the most important criminal trials in Hong Kong legal history. It showed that British officials and police officers had betrayed the trust of Hong Kong residents. Many crooked British cops on the take in Hong Kong were known in slang terms as "filth." But in Hong Kong, the term meant, "Fail in London — Try in Hong Kong." The Godber affair was thus the first indication of the major betrayal Hong Kong citizens would experience in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher callously disregarded their democratic rights and consigned them back to a government they viewed with suspicion and fear.[12] The colonial powers supposedly safeguarding Hong Kong's rights were really not acting in their interest at all. Like Ann Hui, Hueyin works on documentary material which anticipated the 1980s situation, and this filmic material revealed that Hong Kong citizens were to become exiles within their own country.

Aiko receives news that Hueyin's grandfather has suffered a stroke and urges her to visit him across the border in China. At night, Hueyin crosses a bridge connecting Hong Kong to the Cantonese city of Guangzhou, where her grandparents now reside. She is dressed like a traditional mainland Chinese woman. This is her last costume change in the film.

Throughout the film, Hueyin wears several distinctive costumes which signify the changing nature of her cultural identity. In "swinging London" she wears Carnaby Street type outfits. When she returns to Hong Kong for her sister's wedding, Aiko forces the daughter to wear a traditional, bright red, bridesmaid's dress. In Japan, Hueyin wears relaxed casual clothes, as she does during scenes showing her working as a producer in TVB. Aiko also wears different costumes. We first see her in modern seventies Hong Kong costume. Like Hueyin, the audience initially thinks she is Chinese until we learn her actual identity in one of the flashbacks. During her Macao period with her Chinese in-laws, Aiko wears a traditional, demure, forties Chinese female dress as opposed to her Japanese clothes worn immediately after the Japanese defeat. As Jane Gaines points out, costume can function as an important part of cinematic mise-en-scene, fitting characters like a "second skin, working in this capacity for the course of narrative by relaying information to the viewer about a person."[13] Although costumes in SONG OF THE EXILE function to represent interiority ("vehicles for the soul"), they do not resemble the opulent fashions that have symbolic and emotional weight in Hollywood melodrama. They function rather as cultural signifiers articulating a broader culturally and historically defined mise-en scene, determining (and often modifying) self-definitions of individual significance. In NOW VOYAGER (1942), Bette Davis changes costumes according to her individual belief in self-negotiation. But in SONG OF THE EXILE, Hueyin constantly renegotiates her identity and costume changes according to historical and social circumstances.

In visiting the elderly grandparents in mainland China, Hueyin enters a dark somber world which contrasts with the more brightly colored world of Macao. Grandfather has suffered a stroke following a brutal twenty-four hour interrogation by Red Guards, the cause of which was his attempt to send his granddaughter a book of traditional Chinese poetry. Despite his incapacity, he counsels Hueyin, "Do not give up hope in China." However, the scene is abruptly curtailed when a retarded boy whom Grandmother cares for literally bites the hand feeding him. As Erens and Abbas have noted, this act brutally contradicts the touching mood in these scenes and appears as an arbitrary intrusion. However, rather than seeing the boy's behavior as "a glimpse of the darker, more inexplicable side of human life that mocks our claims to understand it,"[14] the scene's use of this character may be understood as incorporating an eruption of violent imagery of the kind found in the other two parts of the Boat Trilogy. Such violence unites the themes of the trilogy and suggests that reconciliation in 1997 may not be easy.

Both grandparents have idealized the nature of a mainland Chinese society that has rejected them. Their illusory refusal to confront the realities of a complex, changing China parallels that of Hueyin's xenophobic uncle in Japan. Hui sees the need for adaptability and change but also possible dangers in the future. One of the last scenes in the film shows Hueyin feeding her disabled grandfather while Grandmother feeds the retarded child. Such a fragile moment of peace may he fleeting in terms of a potentially hazardous future.

Hueyin has undergone many changes and identifications. When we last see her, she appears dressed like a traditional Chinese woman devoid of make-up; she is remembering nostalgically the lyrical nature of her past life in Macao with her doting grandparents. SONG OF THE EXILE operates as a culturally complex Chinese melodrama. Rather than emphasizing only domestic life or issues of gender and sexuality, the film focuses on the indissoluble nature of public and private life and the challenging issues of culture, history, and nationality which the protagonists can not avoid.

As I mentioned, SONG OF THE EXILE is the last part of a trilogy, which also needs to be seen in relationship to the earlier films. Analyzing diverse representations contained within 80s Hong Kong cinema, Li Chuck-To notes the different endings of Hui's Boat People trilogy. Both THE STORY OF WOO VIET and BOAT PEOPLE end with a sense of disillusionment with leading characters forced into the open seas. However, specific differences occur in the final scenes:

"But whereas in WOO VIET, a sense of aimless wandering is implied, in BOAT PEOPLE there is a sense of hope as signified in the freeze-frame shot of the young girl hugging herbrother, both staring into the distance at dawn. On them lies the hope of all in the audience who feel they may be facing an impasse but who have not lost their will to live and therefore to hope."[15]

SONG OF THE EXILE concludes with the camera tracking toward Hueyin's weeping face as she remembers a past which will never return. After two shots of her former happy life as a young girl with her doting grandparents in Macao, the image dissolves to a quiet scene of Guangzhou at night and concludes with one of the bridge uniting Hong Kong to the mainland. The past recedes before a future whose consequences are highly uncertain.


1. Esther Yau. "Survival and the Post-Colonial Dilemma," a paper presented at The Society for Cinema Studies New Orleans Conference, February 13, 1992.

2. See H.J. Lethbridge, Hard Graft in Hong Kong (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

3. See James Zung and Zhang Yuai, "Hong Kong Cinema and Television in the 1970s: A Perspective," Ed. Li Cheuk-to, A Study of Hong Kong Cinema in the Seventies: 1970-1979 (Hong Kong: The Urban Council, 1984), 15.

4. Patricia Brett Erens, "Border Crossings: The Films of Ann Hui," a paper presented at The Society for Cinema Studies Ottawa Conference, May 17, 1997. Erens changed her presentation to concentrate on SONG OF THE EXILE.

5. See Li Cheuk-to, Ed. Cantonese Melodrama: 1950-1969 (Hong Kong: The Urban Council, 1986).

6. See Nick Browne, "Society and Subjectivity: On the Political Economy of Chinese Melodrama," Eds. Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, Christine Gledhill, Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen (London: British Film Institute, 1994), 167-181; Jane Gaines, "Fire and Desire: Race, Melodrama and Oscar Micheaux," op. cit. 231-245; Chuck Kleinhans, "Realist Melodrama and the African-American Family: Billy Woodberry's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS," op. cit. 157-166.

7. Browne, 170.

8. Esther Yau, "Border Crossing: Mainland China's Presence in Hong Kong Cinema," Eds. Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau, New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 181.

9. Op. cit. 198.

10. See J. Hobcrman, "SONG OF THE EXILE," Village Voice 36 (March 19, 1991): 51.

11. Akbar Abbas, The New Hong Kong Cinema: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 38.

12. See Tony Williams, "Apocalyptic Chaos and TIGER CAGE," a paper presented at The Society for Cinema Studies, Ottawa, May 17, 1997.

13. Jane Gaines, "Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Story," Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog (New York: Routledge, 1990), 181.

14. Abbas, 39.

15. Li Cheuk-To, "The Return of the Father: Hong Kong New Wave and its Chinese Context in the 1980s, New Chinese Cinemas, 167-158.