Winner of Best Film and Best Director at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards, Ming yue ji shi you (Our Time Will Come, 2017) is the 29th film directed by Ann Hui, a leading figure in the Hong Kong New Wave cinema of the 1980s. Set during the Japanese occupation, its release coincided with the 17th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China from the United Kingdom. The film stars Zhou Xun – a major star in China as well as an emerging director in her own right – in the role of Fang Lan, in a loose depiction of the exploits of famous resistance figure Fang Gun. But this isn’t really a war film.

Opposite Zhou Xun are Taiwanese stars Eddie Peng – who has appeared in wuxia, romance and action movies and has starred for Tsui Hark and Zhang Yimou – in the role of action hero and heartthrob Blackie Lau, and Wallace Huo as Fang’s romantic interest and undercover operative Lee Gam-Wing, a character playing through a love of cooking and poetry to infiltrate the Japanese officer class. But this isn’t really a romance. It also has comic moments without being a comedy. Like some landmarks in Hui’s career (The Way We Are from 2008 and 2011’s A Simple Life), Our Time Will Come is powerfully realist in its account of destitution (it took the award for art direction at the Hong Kong Film Awards) without adopting the open-ended realism of those films. And despite taking yet another award for best film score, it isn’t quite a melodrama either. 

If anything, the central storyline concerns Fang’s relationship with her mother (played by veteran Paw Hee-ching): widowed, disappointed, fretful, overly protective, occasionally exploitative. In an early scene, the young Fang helps the family rabbit, destined for the pot, to escape: later her mother will mock the fact that she couldn’t even kill a rabbit and now she carries a gun to kill Japanese. As it happens, she never does kill anyone. The closest we get to seeing her in an action sequence is a failed attempt to break into the prison where her mother has been locked up for trying to send Fang a warning. A sequence of Mrs. Fang comforting two other women in her cell may be the high point of the film’s emotional arc. She is executed. Wing hobbles away from his Japanese captor who, in a parallel though opposite act, allows him to go. Fang Lan escapes on a junk with Blackie Lau.

There is a striking motif of food – eating, not eating, cooking, purchasing and talking about food – running through the film. Not the kind of careless, endless snacking you can see in too many contemporary American movies with their product placement, method-fidgeting and gluttony, but thoughtful and focused eating, pensive shots of near-empty rice rations, a romantic promise to “cook for you everyday,” and the release of the aforementioned bunny. There is both realism and poetry to the theme, a constant reminder of the privations suffered by the occupied without having to depict cruel treatment on screen. The generic background suffices to shape the audience’s dread of capture by the Kempeitai occupation police, so that the Japanese don’t have to be painted as black-hearted villains, though Lee’s scarring at the hands of his Japanese overseer is shocking enough. The penultimate shot of the film is a pan from the junk escaping across the bay at twilight to the lights of modern Hong Kong, sixty-five years later. The obligation the modern city owes to its half-forgotten resistance heroine is one of the film’s clearest messages. 

The same theme is given a further emphasis in the final shot. Throughout the film, Hui cuts from the drama, shot in colour, to testimonies from older men and women talking about their memories of the war, the occupation, the resistance and Fang Gun. The last witness interviewed, recalling his childhood acquaintance with the real protagonist, stands up, turning away from the camera as the reel transitions from grayscale to colour. The camera follows him as he crosses the street to get into the driver’s seat of an ordinary city taxi. The heroes of the 1940s were, only a few years ago, still on the streets of Hong Kong. Whether there was intended some disappearingly subtle reference to relations between the Special Economic Zone and China this commentator could not tell. Perhaps it has no bearing on the greater thematics of the film.

One of the most striking attributes of the film’s setting in historical Hong Kong – outside the wuxia genre’s fantastic architectures and deracinated locations – is the pawkiness of the narrow alleys, many of them having all the hallmarks of real locations in preserved areas where colonial architecture might still be found among colonial-era tenements. The skies are rarely blue, unlike some iconic Hong Kong-set movies this century like Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs of 2002. Instead they are overcast or rainy, smoky from small stoves and fires, and there are no vistas, either of tall buildings or the mountains surrounding the city, where much of the action takes place. Perhaps the film was not shot on location after all, at least for those urban exteriors. That would fit with the standard Hong Kong practice of actors dubbing their own voice parts after principal photography, and with Hui’s frequent explorations of cultural dislocation.

The most obviously dislocated figure is the Japanese officer Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) with his love of Chinese poetry and his code of honour that sets free an enemy of the occupying forces. But his is only the most extreme estrangement: as their knowledge of and devotion to each other evolves and deepens through the course of the narrative, mother and daughter Fang must each let go of central tenets and traditions of their identities. As Blackie Lau, Peng’s performance reminds us of what that is supposed to look like: the hero with no ties or obligations taking wild risks and, on the brink of stereotype, laughing in the face of danger in the film’s most comedic moments. But for much of the film, we are enticed into watching the decay and failure of daily rituals in a defeated city – that has only exchanged one imperial power for another. The male leads have their own ways of surviving their alienation. For the women at the centre of the story and its delicately observational cinematography, there is something more than the sacrifice required of women in resistance movies since Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Their survival takes up the literal roots of the word: to live on beyond, to carry on living after the worst has already happened. Hui’s film discovers, under the foundations of the modern city, a history of women’s survival. 

 Ming yue ji shi you/Our Time Will Come (2017 Hong Kong/China 103 mins)

Prod Co: Bona Film Group, Distribution Workshop, Class Limited, Entertainment Team Media Group Prod: Roger Lee, Stephen Lam, Ann Hui Dir: Ann Hui Scr: He Jiping Phot: Nelson Yu Lik-wai Ed: Mary Stephen Mus: Joe Hisaishi Prod Des: Lim-Chung Man Cos Des: Polly Chan

Cast: Zhou Xun, Eddie Peng, Wallace Huo, Paw Hee-ching, Deannie Ip, Tony Ka Fai Leung

About The Author

Seán Cubitt is Professor of Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne. His publications include The Cinema Effect, Ecomedia, The Practice of Light, Finite Media, Anecdotal Evidence and Truth. He is series editor for Leonardo Books.

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