The beginning of Ann Hui’s “Boat People” makes it difficult to discern whether audiences are watching fact or fiction. Civilians flanked left and right watch a military parade of tanks roll down the streets; Hui’s camera takes the high vantage point of one of the tanks to begin filming a man photographing the parade. Here’s someone capturing the truth with his camera and here’s Hui capturing that someone in the same manner. The ontology of Hui’s truth is just the same as the man down below, except here, Hui is behaving as an outsider.
Not too soon afterwards, the man down below is revealed to be “Boat People’s” main character, Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese photojournalist who has returned to the now Communist Vietnam, in order to document the quality of life after the war under the new political regime. Contrary to Hui, while Akutagawa may be an outsider to Vietnam, his technique as a photojournalist doesn’t remove him from the events at hand but rather places him directly in the center.
Unhappy with being monitored by an escort, Akutagawa heads to the streets alone and begins documenting the “real” Vietnam in a Vertovian manner. Eventually, Akutagawa begins to spend every day with Cam Nuong (Season Ma), a 14-year old peasant girl who allows Akutagawa to document her and her family’s daily rituals, thus placing Akutagawa into the heart and soul of low-class Vietnamese culture. And wherever Akutagawa goes, Hui is there—as an outsider—filming the events. Hui’s presence in the film turns “Boat People” into a filmic experiment of blending fact and fiction; Hui herself previously worked as a documentarian and directed three episodes of the television show “Below the Lion Rock—“ a series which focused on the lives of Hong Kong citizens. Her most famous episode, “Boy from Vietnam,” not only begins Hui’s journey into chronicling the struggles of Vietnamese citizens but also the start of her “Vietnam trilogy” for which “Boat People” makes up the last part of.
While “Boat People” may indeed be a fictional film, Hui’s work in directing it doesn’t necessarily remove her from the role of the documentarian. The events at hand in “Boat People” are fictional but the stories around them are the truth. Yet Hui’s interest doesn’t lie in turning the struggles of Vietnamese citizens into a spectacle but rather using the cinema to capture a truth that’s no longer available and herein lies the strength of “Boat People.” Hui presents the life of Nuong as both beautiful and brutal be it the flash of a smile after market or the looting of the dead after an execution.