Pictorial storytelling and staging in Ann Hui’s The Way We Are

by Gary Bettinson

Critical writing has largely ignored the visual dimension of Ann Hui’s cinema. Even frankly laudatory accounts of Hui’s work—which rightly applaud its social purpose, ethico-political value, and dedication to Hong Kong’s marginalized sites of destitution and impoverishment—tend either to disregard visual style or to characterize it in only the vaguest terms. [1] [open notes in new window] Critics all but concede that Hui’s achievement lies elsewhere than in visual expression.What accounts for this critical dismissal of Hui’s film style?

One explanation lies in the persistent view that Hui’s movies, for all their thematic unity, lack stylistic coherence. They also purportedly lack perceptual salience. To the extent that Hui possesses a visual signature, it is “invisible,” “transparent,” “imperceptible,” “self-effacing”—and hence, it would seem, apt to be overlooked.[2] Then there is the director’s own appraisal of her film style, which seems only to have cemented the critical consensus. Her characteristic remarks (“I have not been innovative in terms of film language or technique;” “I still don’t feel that I really have a distinctive cinematic style”) have hardly encouraged critics to probe her films’ visual strategies.[3] All of this is to say that Hui’s auteurist reputation derives not from an identifiable set of visual traits, and still less from a palpable mastery of cinematic technique. And yet, I hope to demonstrate, Hui’s approach to pictorial design displays considerable prowess. By focusing in particular on her tactics of figure staging (operating in concert with other visual parameters), I want to suggest that Hui’s deceptively “unassuming” aesthetic contributes greatly to the power and value of her work.

Hui (right) and fellow New Wave director Tsui Hark (left) on the set of Tsui’s ‘Conversation in Depth,’, a segment of the portmanteau film Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (2020). Tsai Ming-liang’s The River (1997) features Hui in an extended cameo appearance as a movie director.

My purpose in this article is not to promote Hui as a trailblazer of film style. But I do aim to show that by slighting Hui’s visual narration, critics have neglected a major aspect of how these films create meaning, guide the spectator’s activity, and harbor dramatic force. If we are to avoid reducing Hui’s cinema to a posse of favorite themes (migration and exile, cultural memory and amnesia, humanism and feminism, societal oppression, filial responsibility, pre-handover anomie and so forth), we need to examine Hui’s reliance on, and proficiency in, pictorial storytelling. This article attempts a modest first step in this direction. Focusing centrally on The Way We Are (2008), I shall try to demonstrate the subtlety and sophistication of Hui’s visual sense, the discreet means by which it conjures not only thematic meaning but also a host of narrational and rhetorical effects.

Why is The Way We Are germane to this endeavor? Not least because much of its action is expressed visually. Embracing a rhetoric of minimalism, Hui seeks to funnel story events through visual means whenever possible. In a film purged of dramatic fillips and crescendos, visual interest becomes a crucial tool for maintaining viewer engagement. Just as important, the film’s minimalist reduction of dialogue places a high burden on editing, camerawork, mise-en-scène, and nonverbal performance—that is, the overarching visual narration—to convey character traits, narrative information, and thematic implication. Much of The Way We Are’s dramatic potency, its quiet yet captivating power, is achieved largely through visual cues. Thus Hui’s film compels us to consider its visual design both as a vessel of narrative meaning and as a stylistic system shaping the viewer’s experience.[4]

In particular, The Way We Are promotes figure staging to a major principle of visual design. Since the film’s minimalist approach manifests a tendency toward fairly long takes and inert framings, Hui is obliged to create and sustain visual interest through the choreography of bodies within the fixed frame. For this reason, it is hard to countenance Mirana M. Szeto’s contention that The Way We Are “is absolutely devoid of mise-en-scène” (2011: 63), for although Szeto reasonably aims to capture the film’s apparent rejection of artifice, she overlooks its intricate, purposive staging of figures within the frame.[5] Hui makes blocking a key expressive resource. Not every shot in The Way We Are adopts a tableau aesthetic (immobile camera; distant framing; extended duration) and not all of Hui’s staging techniques can lay claim to novelty (diagonal and triangular formations yield foreground-background interplay and animate familiar schemas of blocking and revealing).

In The Way We Are Hui does not permit triangular staging to become self-conscious but rather keeps the action fluid .... ... by maneuvering figures around the frame and mobilizing a play of blocking and revealing.

But by tracing her staging patterns and their discrete functions, we shall see that Hui proves remarkably adept at positioning and maneuvering figures around the frame, modulating centers of interest within a visual array, and hinting at story developments not articulated by the film’s taciturn protagonists.

These staging patterns unfold within a pared-down mode of storytelling. Stylistically, the film’s editing rate is more deliberate, its camera movements more sparing, than we might expect from a Hong Kong drama of the fledgling 2000s. (Its average shot length of 16.4 seconds is sluggish compared to many Hong Kong films of the period.[6]) The Way We Are employs facial close-ups (CUs), but rarely. Scarcer still are optical point-of-view (POV) shots. Instead, the film favors long shots, plans américains, and prolonged takes (even, occasionally, sequence shots)—hence the need to dynamize the visual field through mobile staging, varied camera setups, a piecemeal disclosure of dramatic space, and other subtly arresting tactics.

Hui employs facial close-ups sparingly in The Way We Are. Medium long shots, mobile staging, and extended takes are among The Way We Are’s most characteristic visual resources.

Not that the film’s minimalist impulse is confined to the image track: characteristically, Hui dovetails visual style with story and genre. Just as The Way We Are streamlines stylistic discourse, so it attenuates plot: instead of fraught conflicts and revelations, the action dwells in the domain of the everyday, the humdrum minutia of ordinary life. Ostensibly a melodrama, the film flouts the hyperbole and theatricality ingredient to this genre. Its expository setup might prime us to expect the flaunting of feverish passions—tempestuous liaisons, generational conflict, fatal illnesses, emotional catharsis, bathos—yet Hui dangles no romantic prospects before the widowed protagonists (Kwai and Granny), nor does she tap the melodramatic heroine’s hysteria and histrionics. She also eschews filial conflict and deflects sentimentality. The film’s emotional resonance springs rather from a rhetoric of restraint, a controlled dampening down of melodrama’s emotionally charged appeals. Then there is the tempering of Hui’s authorial motifs. Contra her purported lack of a consistent auteur style, Hui’s oeuvre does exhibit some recurring stylistic tendencies—unmotivated camera movements; prominently placed mirrors; subjective imagery; voiceover narration—but The Way We Are pointedly subdues or strips away these signature devices.

Hui’s authorial mirror motif is afforded flamboyant treatment in both the horror-comedy Visible Secret (2001)… …and the action drama The Stunt Woman (1996).

In all, Hui treats The Way We Are as an occasion for aesthetic economy. “Instead of adding more things,” she has remarked of the film, “I sort of subtracted,” (Phathanavirangoon 2009). But she seems also to have actively pursued a stylistic challenge born of self-imposed constraints. If the plot is wispy, if genre norms are diluted, and if visual presentation verges on the austere, how to elicit and sustain narrative interest? Hui finds various solutions to this problem, among them a strategic play with the viewer’s expectations, steering hypotheses awry; and a kind of intrinsic pluralism, integrating different stylistic approaches and methods of filmmaking. To both strategies, staging will prove instrumental. We might say that Hui’s staging “compensates” for the film’s reduction of standard resources of style and story (such as frequent close-ups, brisk cutting, and dialogue). Or, put differently, a film that minifies certain aspects of its style (again, close framings, dynamic editing) invariably requires other stylistic elements (in this case, staging) to become more “active” than usual, perhaps even “maximalized”: the onus falls on such elements to seize and steer the viewer’s attention, and to discharge a range of other storytelling duties. This aesthetic approach, exemplified by The Way We Are, not only demands an attentive spectator; it also creates a deceptively dense visual texture rich in subtlety, nuance, and emotion.

Staging the primacy effect

A crisp prologue to The Way We Are demonstrates how Hui combines cinematic staging with techniques less characteristic of the film as a whole—facial close-ups, energetic cinematography—in order to execute a host of expository functions. In the process, Hui demonstrates mastery of an idiom she is seldom recognized for: the revelation of “pure cinema,” the propensity to carpenter stretches of action chiefly by visual means.

An oblique, dorsal CU of an unindividuated figure (whom retrospectively we infer is the female protagonist Kwai [Paw Hee-ching] departing her flat) starts the “plot” in motion. The sound of the door clanking behind her provides a sonic bridge to a profiled medium CU of On (Leung Chun-lung), Kwai’s adolescent son. The boy languishes somnolently in bed, clutching a pillow. Cut to a new locale: the backroom of the supermarket where Kwai works as a vendor. An opaque curtain, flanked by columns of lockers, is drawn aside by Kwai—a somewhat theatrical staging gambit that unveils our protagonist, this time perspicuously. On the shop floor, Kwai ferries weighty boxes of durian to and fro. A repeated panning gesture, mechanically tracing Kwai’s back-and-forth trajectory, gently underscores the suggestion of laborious routine. An elliptical cut, meanwhile, amplifies the heroine’s vigorous work rate. Sans dialogue, Hui’s visual tactics shoulder the task of character exposition; with deft economy, Kwai is established as purposeful, indefatigable, and hardworking.

The narration cuts back to On, still lying motionless. He stirs and sits up listlessly. An ellipsis conveys him to the apartment’s sofa on which he adopts another sedentary position. By now it is apparent that by means of parallel editing Hui wants us to measure the differences between Kwai and On: the mother’s tireless industry versus the son’s perpetual torpor. This narrative juxtaposition is reinforced by the prologue’s stylistic workings.

Unlike the supermarket action, the shots of On contain very little movement. When he lounges on the couch in medium shot, the camera remains static. Hui disdains a change of angle or of shot scale. The extended take (twenty-three seconds)—and the stasis of and within the frame—accentuate On’s inertia. And unlike its function in the supermarket action, ellipticality here serves not to quicken the drama’s tempo but to implicate On in long passages of temps mort. By the time the juxtaposed action lines converge, the prologue’s elliptical cuts will have toggled through Kwai’s entire workday, the duration of which On idles away in relative immobility. Here again Hui relies upon the image track to mobilize the primacy effect—that is, the initial process whereby spectators ascribe traits to characters. However, as we will shortly see, Hui’s tricky narration cheats our expectations, eliciting a judgment of On that proves wide of target.

The prologue’s visual narration pursues other effects. Again and again, the sequence teases us with erroneous hints that On is about to launch into purposeful action. Supine on the sofa, the youth languidly lifts a dumbbell (a comical gesture of physical exertion belied by the boy’s stagnation), only for an ellipsis to find him once again dead asleep. Now awakened, he tardily rises and traipses offscreen, before shuffling back to the couch—toting his cherished pillow—to resume his slumber. Intercut with mobile shots of Kwai at the supermarket, On is then shown in stationary medium shot, robotically brushing his teeth in the bathroom mirror, thereby continuing the prologue’s emphasis on nonverbal, procedural action.[7]

A subsequent shot reveals On’s ambulation to be yet another false start: the youth has repaired to the sofa and lapsed into a deep sleep. The sequence wrings humor out of On’s lethargy, creating a comic effect through visual stratagems. When On ambles offscreen to retrieve a pillow, Hui’s camera neither pans or tracks to trace his path nor cuts to the space he now occupies. Rather, the medium-long shot remains trained on the vacant couch. Now, as On ambles back into frame, plops down on the couch, and nestles into the pillow, Hui permits the shot to linger longer than necessary—the better to emphasize On’s utter inertia, his habitual passivity. Much of the humor results from Hui’s tactics of staging and shooting. By orchestrating an unwavering long take of twenty-eight seconds, the camera’s deadpan fixity, and repetitive figure staging (On’s chronic horizontality), Hui conjures a vividly amusing portrait of teenage sloth.

On finally rouses when Kwai returns home from work. Crosscutting has so far governed the prologue’s narration, alternating between stylistic “energy” (Kwai’s line of action) and visual stasis (On’s line of action). But now that the action lines intersect, Hui lets the static style dominate. A locked-down camera observes Kwai entering the apartment in long shot. Hui maneuvers the two protagonists around the fixed frame, and ushers them into offscreen niches of the apartment (kitchen and bathroom). Notably the pair says not a word to each other. Another ellipsis yields a slight reframing, as Kwai and On share a meal together around a circular dining table.[8] Eventually, a terse and ostensibly trivial dialogue exchange breaks the silence and inaugurates a recurring newspaper motif. Kwai asks, “Did you buy today’s paper?” On replies: “No, I didn’t go out.” In silence they continue eating.

Hui’s prologue has delivered a compact model of pure cinema. Almost devoid of dialogue, the sequence delineates the drama visually, establishes the film’s primary locales (apartment, supermarket), contrasts the protagonists, hints at routinized existence, and generates humor. To a large extent, the prologue serves as a microcosm of strategies upon which the film will expand. Apart from the visual articulation of everyday rituals, of characterization, and of (what we might call) quotidian comedy, the prologue also coaxes us to form misguided inferences. As noted above, the primacy effect cues us to misjudge On. The teenager’s apparent proclivity to loll in bed all day (amplified by the interwoven scenes stressing Kwai’s productivity), his glum laconicism, the working-class milieu in which he resides (an impersonal housing estate located in crime-ridden Tin Shui Wai)—all these details prompt us to peg On as a soporific wastrel, a delinquent youth in the mold of the ah fei archetype found in countless heroic bloodshed sagas.[9]

Local idol Jordan Chan (right) as one of the numerous ah fei types populating Andrew Lau’s triad drama Young and Dangerous (1996). Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (1997) centres on the miscreant Moon (Sam Lee) who, though fundamentally a sympathetic figure, is far removed from the timid and dutiful On in The Way We Are.

Moreover, that On and Kwai speak hardly at all augurs a melodramatic story centered on generational conflict and juvenile deviancy. Ultimately The Way We Are will subvert these assumptions, gradually revealing On to be not workshy but dutiful, kind-hearted, and gentle. Not for the last time, the film’s visual narration arouses our expectations only to scotch them.