Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many people endeavoured to escape the country, with the main method available being by boat. It is estimated that on top of the 800,000 people that safely arrived in another country, a large number of refugees, almost as many as those who survived, did not. Admittedly, when I first put my hand up to write about this film – while I thought it would be emotionally heavy to do so – I thought that the process of writing this piece would be a little more straightforward, based on my perception of what a film called Boat People might be about. I thought about what I had learnt so far from my family members, family friends, and the families of my friends about the experience of being a “boat person”. I thought about the conversations I have been lucky to have in the motherland that has broadened my understanding of what it would have been like to stay living in post-war Vietnam. As such, I was prepared to write a piece informed by these ideas and what the experience of watching Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982) helped to inform. Upon watching this film, I realised it was far more layered. Simply put, Boat People demands more than a sole perspective through its contextual foundation as a film in the international festival sphere written and directed by a filmmaker from Hong Kong, filmed in mainland China about “the reality” of a re-unified Socialist Vietnam after the end of the war, still very fresh from impacts of conflict.

Prior to Boat People’s presence in the international circuit, viewing the film as a political allegory for Hong Kong’s situation at the time became an incidental response. Positioning Boat People in the context of real-world historical events, it was released 7 years after the Fall of Saigon, 7 years before the events of May 35th, and 15 years prior to the handover of Hong Kong to China from British colonial rule. Suffice it to say, for a director hailing from Hong Kong, there would have been a lot going on. In an interview in 1982, the year that the film was released as well as when discussions began between Britain and China about Hong Kong’s future status, Hui professed, “I really do not understand politics. I don’t know if it’s too simple so I don’t care to understand it, or if it’s too complicated, so I can’t understand it”.1 While these were words said, it is hard to believe them to be truly felt by the director, as the film accentuates the impacts of prolonged conflict and the hardship and poverty that comes from it. Ka-Fai Yau speaks to an unconscious political dimension that Hui’s films include due to the nuanced political context of hailing from Hong Kong during this period.2 Thus, while the film was supposed to mainly humanise Vietnamese refugees who were migrating to Hong Kong, there was a latent political allegory that was consciously felt by viewers in Hong Kong, concerning the future impact of the handover, and the weight and change that it would perhaps carry. Vinh Nguyen identifies the inability of the film to humanise the Vietnamese refugees in lieu of Hong Kong viewers’ perspective in their anxieties, but I feel this would have been difficult to avoid.3

The film’s central character is Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese photographer invited by the Vietnamese government to document the country’s supposed “post war successes”. Akutagawa serves as almost a proxy for Hui’s own outsider perspective of Vietnam, and this is represented several times throughout the film, when Akutagawa’s own camera lens serves as a POV. It is illustrated from the outset that the protagonist holds a nuanced political viewpoint, having lost his family at the hands of WWII, as a Japanese person impacted by America. Therefore, he bears a political approach concerned with understanding the reality of the war from at least a neutral perspective. As such, his search for the “real Vietnam” is more one of curiosity, rather than conspiracy. The film initially intended to centre itself more on the experience of being and becoming a boat person, following Andy Lau’s character To Minh as he makes a concerted effort to raise the money he needs in order to flee the country. This shift leads to the film being more about how and why one might want or need to flee Vietnam, rather than what the experience of being a boat person is like.

As a melodrama, the film does not shy away from depicting the brutality of the situation. In researching for the film, Hui gathered information from a variety of accounts from displaced Vietnamese people to feature scenes of this desperation as accurately as possible, Hui depicts situations of poverty that involve young children scrounging through debris at risk of detonating land mines to find items of value, looking through pockets of dead bodies to find money, picking up food that has dropped on the floor in order to feed one’s family among other acts of desperation. This allows the film to thoroughly illustrate why there were so many boat people, and thus so many people who felt compelled to escape from Vietnam.

The film leaves us at a stage of uncertainty and hope. Many boat people ended up on processing islands. I have even heard from one of my parent’s friends who he met at Bidong Island in Malaysia, that the time spent – while waiting to understand what the next stage of their life might look like – was as upon reflection the best time of their life, with so much hope for their future (and so much unknown) whilst being treated well by the inhabitants of the island. Unsurprisingly, these words stuck with me. As the son of a boat person, the scene in which To Minh’s journey comes to an end reminds me of the errant thought I intermittently have of my privilege and luck that my parent was able to survive, that I was able to be here and write these words. Because in that passage of time, between escaping by boat and reaching a safe destination, anything could have happened, and there are countless people, unable to be identified, who lost their lives on that journey. How fortunate it is that so many people who chose to leave were able to have that opportunity to live a life after the war. Hui’s film speaks to an earnest and honest attempt to humanise people who were displaced by an Imperialist war. May we keep striving to do so.

Tau ban no hoi/Boat People (1982 Hong Kong/China 106 minutes)
Prod: Xia Meng Dir: Ann Hui Scr: Dai An-Ping Phot: Wong Chung-kei Ed: Kin Kin Art Dir: Tony Au Mus: Law Wing-fai Cos Des: Saan-Ngai Wong
Cast: George Lam, Andy Lau, Cora Miao, Season Ma


  1. Ka-Fai Yau, “Looking Back at Ann Hui’s Cinema of the Political,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Volume 19, Number 2 (Fall 2007): p. 117.
  2. Yau, p. 121.
  3. Vinh Nguyen, “Ann Hui’s Boat People: Documenting Vietnamese Refugees in Hong Kong” in Looking Back on the Vietnam War: Twenty-first-Century Perspectives, Brenda M. Boyle and Jeehyun Lim, eds. (Ithaca, NY: Rutgers University Press, 2016), p. 94-109.

About The Author

Andy Le is a Vietnamese-Australian film writer and radio broadcaster who recently hosted the 3RRR summer show The Fourth Wall – a music show heavily inspired by a love of film. He is often in the mood for eating.

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