There is a moral dilemma inherent in taking pictures of suffering.
Famed war photographer Robert Capa once remarked that “It’s not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one” and Larry Burrows, who covered the Vietnam war for Life magazine, often caught himself wondering if it was right to capitalize on the grief and suffering of others, but concluded that, “If I can contribute to the understanding of what others are going through then there’s a reason for doing it.”
A photo-journalist chases the scoop, following any number of people or situations to a stolen moment or an encapsulated ‘shot’ of truth. Into the eye of the storm if needs be, as the ends – it is reasoned – justify the means.
But what happens when atrocities witnessed through a lens become a familiar human connection that can no longer be held at a safe distance?
Ann Hui’s Boat People, originally released in 1982, follows Japanese photo-journalist Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam) on a pair of visits to Vietnam, first to document the military liberation of De Nang by communist troops in 1975 and then on his return to the country three years later to witness the progress of reconstruction.
A 20 year war has devastated the divided country but Akutagawa’s hosts, the Cultural Bureau, are intent on showing a ‘good’ vision of a reunified and resurgent Vietnam which they hope the photographer’s images will help reinforce to the world’s press.
Akutagawa is still haunted by a picture taken of a boy on crutches hobbling away from the military parade in De Nang, and so harbours a deeper motive to photograph all the lives affected by the transition – not just those sanctioned by Government officials. This brings him into contact with the victims of a new oppressive regime, including Cam Nuong (Season Ma), a tough-nosed teenager scavenging on the fringes of society with her two younger brothers and ailing mother. Each are forced into perilous situations through circumstance of survival and it’s their plight, along with those of others looking for an escape, that will prompt Akutagawa’s actions and alter his own fate.
As backstory to the events depicted in Hui’s film: following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government with the fall of Saigon in 1975, Communist forces initiated a series of harsh measures on nearly 300,000 people associated with the former government and military of the region, with many sent to re-education camps, where they endured torture, starvation, and disease. New Economic Zones were set up to incentivise poorer citizens – such as those depicted by Cam Nuong and her family in the film – but in truth this was a forcible relocation program where properties of evicted southern Vietnamese were confiscated, collectivized, and then redistributed by the communist authorities. The NEZ’s were often harsh mountainous regions and it’s estimated that roughly 100,000 people died while carrying out hard labor under gruelling conditions.
These New Economic Zones are seen up close when To Minh (Andy Lau), a friend of Can Nuong, is moved to one following his capture and trial for attempting to steal Akutagawa’s camera. While the photographer is still under the illusion that the Zones are relatively safe havens due to Government reassurances, To Minh is well aware of what to expect.
Choosing to go even deeper into this ‘Heart of Darkness’, Akutagawa secures permission to visit Zone number 15 where To Minh has been sent. The atrocities Akutagawa witnesses once the thin veneer of propagandist lies are stripped away, open both his eyes and ours to the kind of world most of us can barely imagine; where the value of human life is weighed as nothing by those in relentless pursuit of control and power. This is the shadowy, dangerous world of Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) or Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields (1984), where an outsider is caught up in a maelstrom of corruption that snuffs out their attempts at decency like a candle in a hurricane.
Akutagawa feels powerless to alter the course of larger events but still he tries; hoping, as all photojournalists do, that his pictures will invoke empathy and affect some kind of change. As new characters are introduced and the urgency for action increases, he becomes fully aware of his camera’s limitations in dealing with the immediate concerns of those he cares for, and so discards it – becoming in effect a subjective participant rather than objective eye-witness.
Boat People, along with being a terrific early example of the ‘Hong Kong New Wave’, was one of the few films attempting to show the underlying reasons for the mass exodus of Vietnamese at a time of waning sympathy in Hong Kong and other neighbouring countries of Southeast Asia that took in the majority of refugees from the first and second waves of migration.
In an essay by Vinh Nguyen included in the reissued Blu-Ray package, director Hui says in an interview: “It’s just that I am trying to explain this particular phenomenon of the boat people and their fleeing from the country, and to make people understand why they flee. And that has the immediate effect of making the Hong Kong people much more sympathetic.”
The emotional arc and occasional melodrama for which the film was initially criticised can thus be seen as an important decision on the part of the director to engage people’s hearts with a very real human catastrophe taking place on their doorstep, and its impact is felt just as strongly now when very similar forced migrations are still all too common.
The Director approved special edition includes a new conversation between Hui and assistant director Stanley Kwan, two documentaries, the controversial 1983 Cannes Film Festival press conference and essays by film critic Justin Chang and scholar Vinh Nguyen.
Blu-Ray released 21st March