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Ann Hui and Deanie Ip: The Meeting of Two Hong Kong Cinema Legends
Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend
At the 2012 Asian Film Awards, director Ann Hui received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her 30-plus years of contribution to Asian cinema. Presenting the award to Hui were the lead actresses in the two most important films of Hui's career: Sylvia Chang, who starred in Hui's first feature film Secret, and Deanie Ip, who starred in Hui's most recent and commercially successful film A Simple Life.
During her introduction speech for Hui, Ip brought up the fact that despite having spent 30-plus years in the Hong Kong film industry, she had never worked with the director until A Simple Life in 2011. Sharing the commonality of being strong women in a male-dominated industry, Hui and Ip have walked two paths that have never strayed far from each other, but would not meet for over 30 years.
Ann Hui: The Independent Observer
Born in 1947, Ann Hui On Wah enrolled in the London Film School after receiving her Master's degree in English and Comparative Literature from Hong Kong University. After returning to Hong Kong, she became a writer/director at television station TVB. Despite pushing its directors to produce content on an incredibly tight timeline, the station also gave them a tremendous amount of freedom, allowing them to produce shows about brutal true-life crimes and difficult social issues. At TVB, Hui produced acclaimed 45-minute television films like CID: Murder, about a man who kills his young daughter, and Social Worker - Ah Sze, the pessimistic story of a Mainland woman in Hong Kong who is repeatedly exploited by men.
Going as far back as her television days, Ann Hui has shown that she excels at being an observer. Even when telling stories about the darkest side of human nature - including 2010's Night and Fog, also based on a true crime - Hui remains a neutral observer who simply lets the facts of the stories play out. Defending her position, Hui once said this in an interview for Hong Kong's Muse magazine in 2009: "If I have to tell people to do positive things [with my movies], then why didn't I just become a teacher or a social worker?"
Despite making her start with serious, socially relevant stories in television, Hui began her feature film career with two genre films: the 1979 mystery thriller The Secret and the 1980 horror-comedy Spooky Bunch. While the two films saw moderate success, Hui truly hit her stride with The Story of Woo Viet and Boat People, two serious dramas about the plight of people living in post-war Vietnam. Boat People, in particular, received major critical acclaim, winning Best Film and Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA). In a 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards poll with 101 scholars, filmmakers, and professionals, Boat People was voted as the eighth best Chinese-language film made in the past 100 years.
Throughout her career, Hui has demonstrated an amazingly wide range of topics in her films, from hit horror film Visible Secret to simple humanistic dramas like July Rhapsody to the wuxia epic The Romance of Book and Sword. Hui even took a detour to Mainland China during Hong Kong cinema's toughest time in the mid-2000s with crime drama Jade Goddess of Mercy (starring Vicki Zhao and Nicholas Tse) and The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (starring Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun Fat). However, Hui returned to Hong Kong soon after with a string of local films like The Way We Are and lesbian romance All About Love, solidifying her reputation as a true Hong Kong director who tells Hong Kong stories.
Deanie Ip: From nightclub to Sister Peach
Also born in 1947, Deanie Ip began her singing career in the 1960s, performing English songs in nightclubs. She made her foray into the Canto-pop in 1981 and immediately stood out for her unique voice (which she'd developed after losing her voice due to illness). Some of her biggest hits include her cover of Star, Weary, and the Eliza Chan duet A Thousand Suns. Ip slowly faded out of the music industry in the late 1980s, turning her focus to her acting career.
Ip's work in films began around the same time as her music career, with roles in acclaimed Hong Kong New Wave films like Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind and Love Massacre. Her first major recognition as an actress came in 1981, with a Best Supporting Actress prize at the Golden Horse Awards for her performance in the youth drama Cream Soda and Milk.
Ip's most famous role, however, is in 1985's The Unwritten Law. Directed by Taylor Wong, the film stars Ip as a prostitute accused of murder and Andy Lau as a young lawyer who takes on the task of defending her. In addition to winning Best Screenplay at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Ip won her first HKFA Best Actress prize for her powerful performance in her emotional scenes with Lau. Even though Ip and Lau had previously played mother and son in the 1982 television drama The Emissary, The Unwritten Law and its sequels (The Truth and The Truth Final Episode) cemented Lau and Ip as one of Hong Kong cinema's most popular screen pairings. The two would share the screen in many more films, including Handsome Siblings, The Prince of Temple Street, Dances with the Dragon, and Prince Charming. Ip would even later become Lau's godmother, despite being only 14 years older than Lau.
In addition to her pairings with Andy Lau, Ip has also picked up accolades for her performances in films like Spiritual Love, Fight Back to School 2, Murder, and Crying Heart. After Queen of Kowloon in 2000, however, Ip would remain absent from Hong Kong cinema for over a decade.
A Simple Life: A pairing three decades in the making
After spending 30 years on different career paths, Ann Hui and Deanie Ip finally worked on their first film together in A Simple Life, a drama about the strong bond between a man and his elderly maid. Hui was initially shown the script by film finance controller/producer Roger Lee, who based it on his experiences during his family maid Tao's final years. Financed with assistance by Andy Lau's Focus Films, A Simple Life reunited Lau with his godmother, who played Roger and Tao, respectively. In addition to being Hui's first film with Andy Lau since 1991's Zodiac Killer, it's also Ip's first film in 11 years.
In addition to drawing from Roger Lee's own story, both Hui and Ip also inserted their own experiences for A Simple Life. Hui, who lives with her elderly mother, visited care facilities for the elderly to get a feel for the environment, while Ip has joked publicly that she didn't have to do any research because she was an old person.
Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, A Simple Life was praised for both Hui's subtle storytelling style and Ip's brilliant performance. Ip even became the first Chinese actress to win the Best Actress award at the festival. The recognition at Venice kicked off a long awards streak for Ip, who picked up Best Actress prizes across the world from the Golden Horse Awards, the Asian Film Awards, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, and the Hong Kong Film Awards. The film also earned Hui her fourth Best Director award at the Hong Kong Film Awards - the most wins for an individual director in the award's history.
As two of the few hometown winners at the 2012 Asian Film Awards, Hui and Ip naturally became Hong Kong's latest media darlings, especially at the packed media event the day after. The two had plenty of smiles for the cameras, but they also remained honest and humble throughout the question-and-answer session.
Even after being recognized around the world for her performance, Ip admits that she has no plans for a full-on comeback to Hong Kong cinema, knowing that older actresses like herself simply don't receive as many opportunities as their younger counterparts. "Audiences want to see younger characters, so many films don't want older characters as protagonists," laments Ip when asked about possible future roles. "Even in Hollywood, only Meryl Streep and Judi Dench consistently get good roles. I guess I'm the luckiest actress in Hong Kong."
Meanwhile, despite her decades of filmmaking experience and being the first woman to win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Asian Film Awards, Hui insists that she is in no position to offer advice for a younger generation of filmmakers who look to her as a role model. "Having experience doesn't mean I can become Confucius," says Hui. "This generation has a new set of problems, and I don't want to tell people what to do. They should make their own choices."
While much of the media focus on A Simple Life has been on Andy Lau and Ip, one particular story about Ip and Hui has been floating around: After their respective victories at the Hong Kong Film Awards, both Ip and Hui attended a party organized by Bona Film Group, who financed and distributed A Simple Life. Upon their arrival, Hui was eager to pick up a snack because she had not eaten anything all night. However, Ip stopped Hui, telling her that it's not healthy to eat so late at night. Even if the two never work together again, we can at least take comfort in the fact that A Simple Life marks the beginning of what appears to be a beautiful friendship between two Hong Kong cinema legends.
Special thanks to the Asian Film Awards
Published June 28, 2012