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'Boat People' Confronts 'Civil War'’s Ideas with More Complexity and Issues of Its Own

A photojournalist takes pictures of Vietnamese soldiers.
Janus Films

Last month, Alex Garland’s Civil War took the film world by storm. The promised action epic turned out to be a war photographer road trip movie, while Garland was in the press giving a different interpretation of his film’s politics every day. As critical consensus on the film continues to be divided, the failings of that film can be illuminated by another war photographer movie made 42 years ago: the  complicated Boat People.

Boat People is the fourth feature film by Hong Kong New Wave icon Ann Hui, and the final part of her informal Vietnam Trilogy. The 1982 film tells the story of Mr. Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese war photographer sent to cover life in Vietnam after the War. While he is initially shown a ready-made, propagandist “New Economic Zone” by the Communist government’s officials, he eventually ventures out of his way and encounters a starving family of a single mother and three kids, including eldest sister Cam Nuong (Season Ma). As he attempts to help the struggling family and their friends, they also risk their lives to board the boats that will take them away from their home country, forming the post-Vietnam War boat people refugee crisis in the 1970s and ’80s.

The brilliance of Hui’s film is that there’s no pretence of journalism being “objective” or “impartial.” Before the first frame, it is resolutely prepared to deal with the limitations and ineptitudes of journalism. But at the same time, the film is complicated, if not enriched, by other knotty politics of its own, whether by using Communist Vietnam as a giant metaphor for an imagined post-1997 Hong Kong, or Hui’s collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party to achieve her filmmaking goals.

The fundamental problem with Garland’s Civil War is that it spends 80% of its runtime living under this false pretence that journalism should be objective and neutral, and that the essence of journalism is to document, not to intervene. These ideas are encapsulated in an early speech given by the veteran Lee (Kirsten Dunst) to the hungry apprentice Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Thankfully, Civil War is smart enough to realize by the end that journalism can be easily corruptible if not complicit in war crimes and partisanship, but while it takes Garland an entire movie to get there, Hui’s there from the start.

A photojournalist stands behind barbed wire.
Janus Films

The first act of Boat People sees Akutagawa prone not only to the physical conditions predetermined by the state apparatus, but also to their psychological manipulation. To our incredulity, Akutagawa actually believes the picturesque 16th New Economic Zone is the new Vietnam fresh from the war. Hui’s film shows that photojournalists, even one as presumably renowned and professional as Akutagawa, are not above the control of the state. Instead of a fourth power countering the three branches, journalism merely becomes a tool to serve the three. From there, Akutagawa has to figure out a way to escape the Communists’ arrangements. Civil War sees the main characters falling deeper and deeper into the trap of partisanship, whereas the hero’s journey of Boat People is the exact opposite — to escape and defy the bias laid out for Akutagawa.

But can he? The noble Akutagawa only succeeds to a certain extent. While he is seemingly free to roam the impoverished streets of Da Nang taking photos, his camera is confiscated without question when he hatches a ride to the inhumane 15th New Economic Zone, even after he protests that he has state approval. At this point of the film, we have been so used to seeing Akutagawa with his camera that it has almost become an extension of his body, and this forced separation feels like a mutilation. 

When even the photojournalist’s most basic tool can be taken away, is there anything that can’t be? Hui cautions us not to take our fundamental rights for granted, for the dictatorship’s reach knows no bounds. And while she has set us up into believing Akutagawa’s photos are sacredly fulfilling his noble task, the state officials have been thinking ten steps ahead with a plan to impound them before his departure. The dictatorship giveth, and the dictatorship taketh away.

There’s another, bigger subversion that shows Boat People’s sobering intelligence. The film’s true value is that it’s a Vietnam movie unlike the many Hollywood productions made about the War, and one of its most defiant yet bleakest traits is its subversion of the “white saviour” narrative. When Akutagawa sees the true horrors of the impoverished citizens, what can he do to help? All he can do is to stuff them with money, paying for their food and insultingly leaving large sums — like it’s nothing — to fulfil their dashed entrepreneurial dreams, seemingly lifting them out of poverty. If this feels like the white saviour narrative of many Hollywood films, Hui has a trick up her sleeve. It is another character, not Akutagawa, who successfully makes their way onto the boat and fulfills the true destiny and identity of the “boat people.” Instead, Akutagawa ends the movie in one of the film’s most horrifying, violent episodes. 

When we watch movies, we are so used to the supposed hero, especially the white saviour, just coasting through life unscathed or meeting his goal. Even in Boat People, Akutagawa has been able to get away with a lot of “misbehaviour” with only a few light scratches. But not in the film’s stunning finale, as Hui rebelliously burns down the image of the foreign, philanthropic humanitarian. Hui critically tells us it is not the outsider or foreigner who can save the oppressed, but the oppressed themselves.

Of course, it must be addressed that Akutagawa is Japanese, not white. But don’t forget that Boat People was made in the early 1980s, when Japan’s emergence as a world power was so strong that it became the second-biggest economy on the planet and was almost poised to overtake America. Geopolitically, a Japanese character was, I would argue, the closest thing to an American without actually involving America. Given America’s fresh history with Vietnam, it’s understandable why Hui didn’t choose an American, and Japan nicely stood in for the diplomatic role of the highly developed, civilized “first world.”

A photojournalist photographs a young woman standing in the rain.
Janus Films

However, as politically astute as Boat People appears, it is not without reproach. The true mark of a masterpiece is that its inadequacies somehow make the film even more fascinating than off-putting. The first question that must be addressed is: why did Hui, a Hongkonger, set out to make a film about Vietnam? 

Her version of the story has always been, ironically, similar to Garland’s. Hui has always denied the geopolitics of her film, and has always insisted she approached Vietnam from a humanitarian perspective. She decided to make the film after hearing and collecting hundreds of horror stories from the mouths of Vietnamese boat people who arrived on the shores of Hong Kong. 

But Hui has also been diplomatic. Her shrewdness about her films’ political meanings allowed her to continuously make movies in Mainland China without much kowtowing or artistic betrayal. Regardless, the author is dead, so her words should only be taken at face value. Generations of audiences have strongly identified the Vietnam of Boat People as a giant metaphor for the Hong Kong handed back to Communist China in 1997 alongside the then-imminent departure of the British government.

The Hong Kong New Wave ranged from socially aware films like Hui’s own and Allen Fong’s realist dramas to swashbuckling genre fare like John Woo’s heroic bloodshed actioners. If there’s a defining trait that unites all of these films, it is the unshakable concern at their hearts — the question of Hong Kong’s future. Even though Boat People was made before the negotiations for the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration even began, the realistic imminence of Hong Kong’s forced “return” to China was already on everyone’s mind. The geographical proximity to China and difference in size made Hong Kong basically impossible for the British to defend (not to mention the British Empire’s post-WWII decolonization). As distressing as the suggestion of a post-1997 Hong Kong conjures, it was also cinematically potent. Through Vietnam, Hui created one of the biggest cinematic imaginations of a dystopian Hong Kong.

Of course, many of these fears and predictions came true, and continue to be truer with every passing day. Even some of the more extreme parts of Boat People don’t sound so foreign in today’s Hong Kong or China: sending people to forced labour and concentration camps; an unreasonable government resolute in constructing a delusional bubble of slogan-like propaganda; the erasure of freedom of speech; the crackdown on journalists; the dwindling economy — you name it, they’re all here. 

But if there’s anything that makes Boat People’s Vietnam so specifically Hong Kong, it’s the colonialism apologia embodied by Officer Nguyen (Shi Mengqi). Even though the officer has professionally assimilated into the new government, the Sorbonne alumnus still drinks French wine and listens to Edith Piaf every night, romanticizing his old colonial Vietnam. This kind of romanticization is not uncommon in Hong Kong, with many reminiscing about the old days of prosperity under Britain, and some even waving Union Jack flags on the street (back when that was still allowed). This close similarity between post-War Vietnam and post-’97 Hong Kong is the reason why Boat People has remained so powerful after four decades, in spite of its complications.

A medium shot of a young woman in Vietnam.
Janus Films

Firstly, is it even appropriate to make Vietnam a metaphor for Hong Kong? Vietnam is, after all, its own country with its own specific history, culture, and people. America has never militaristically interfered with Hong Kong. As valid as Hui’s concerns with Hong Kong’s future are, this erasure of Vietnamese voices and usage of Vietnam as a mere backdrop is deeply troubling, if not offensive. Even though Hui claimed to have done her anthropological research — and there is no reason to doubt her, for she did make documentaries about boat people in Hong Kong — Boat People is still clearly a film made from a foreigner’s perspective. 

Whether visually or linguistically, the authenticity of Vietnamese life in the film is not convincing. This distance is exacerbated by the fact that Hong Kong, like Japan, was undergoing its own economic miracle in the ’80s; Hongkongers were a lot richer than the abjectly suffering Vietnamese characters in the film. By painting such an extreme picture of poverty with no exception, Hui is dangerously close to sitting on her high horse and stereotyping a whole country and the lower class, akin to Hollywood applying a yellow filter on Latin American locations.

The second issue is the casting of the film. Boat People is entirely spoken in Cantonese (dubbed, as per usual of Hong Kong cinema at the time) and played by ethnic Chinese actors. Japanese Akutagawa is played by Hongkonger pop singer George Lam, while Vietnamese Cam Nuong is played by Hongkonger actress Season Ma. In today’s lens, this kind of Asian substitution is deeply inappropriate, but it’s not much different from an entire troupe of British and American actors playing Germans and Poles in Schindler’s List (just to name one example of countless English-speaking foreign historical dramas from Hollywood). Even the more recent Crazy Rich Asians, hailed as groundbreaking and progressive, still participated in this kind of “pan-Asian” casting. 

What instead deepens Boat People’s casting of Han Chinese actors is not their ethnicity, but their nationalities. As Hui herself noted in a 2021 interview (via Criterion Channel), all the ordinary Vietnamese citizens in the film are played by HongKongers, while all the officials in the film are played by actors from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And it’s important that Hui noted this as a benefit: whether she knew it or not (and she clearly did), she gives credence to the interpretation that Boat People is a metaphor for Hong Kong’s future, and that the Vietnamese government in the film is a firm stand-in for the PRC government.

Finally, and perhaps to no surprise at this point of the article, Boat People was shot entirely in the PRC, specifically in the Hainan and Zhejiang provinces. Boat People broke ground by being the first Hong Kong film to shoot in the post-Mao, reforming China. Given the highly critical politics, there was obviously zero possibility of this film shooting in actual Communist Vietnam, but how did the PRC align with this production? The answer is the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, which left the defeated PRC eager to discredit their former ally. 

The obvious problem arises when Hui’s entire film centres around the moral impossibility of Akutagawa working in collaborationism, while she is partaking in such collaborationism herself. Hui claimed the PRC gave her free rein on the script, but surely she must have known that the participation and usage of PRC resources (even featuring the People’s Liberation Army as extras!) would arise as a fundamental ethical problem. The full endorsement and support by the PRC makes this anti-propaganda film itself propaganda. 

A young Asian woman carries a young Asian boy in her arms.
Janus Films

The further twist is what the film turned out to be: a staunch, blazing attack on authoritarianism. So, perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that Hui took the PRC’s resources and made a film against them. Like fellow Hong Kong directors making quietly subversive films in China nowadays, she politically outmanoeuvred and outsmarted them — she “owned” them. Whether you want to call this unethical compromise, acquiescent propaganda, political intelligence, or rebellion within is up to you — what’s certain, though, is that this left the film banned by the PRC.

Boat People was also banned in Taiwan, for the also-authoritarian government in Taiwan was still technically engaged in a civil war with the PRC. Hui’s choice to shoot the film in the PRC banned not only this film in Taiwan, but also all her subsequent movies for years. 

Even more colourfully, the film was originally set to be Hui’s debut in the Competition section of the Cannes Film Festival, before it was pulled last-minute amidst accusations of propaganda by Communism-sympathizing New Left protestors and the French government trying to build diplomatic ties with Vietnam. It secretly appeared Out of Competition at the festival, but the Hong Kong legend never had another film in Cannes Competition again.

The long-winded, complicated history of Boat People accompanies a similarly complicated film. As a journalism movie, it is intelligent; as a prediction of contemporary Hong Kong, it is trenchant. As a cautionary tale against totalitarianism, it is powerful and stirring. But as a film about Vietnam, it is fundamentally removed, inaccurate, and ethically compromised. But all of these things combine together to make Boat People a seminal landmark in Hui’s history-making, storied career, and an unmissable film for those interested in all the exciting and flawed ways of the Hong Kong New Wave.


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