[Review] War Films: Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

{Written by Karen Fang, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Ann Hui (director), Our Time Will Come (Ming yue ji shi you), 2017. 130 min.
Christopher Nolan (director), Dunkirk, 2017. 106 min.

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Several months ago while visiting Hong Kong, I took the opportunity to see Ann Hui’s latest film, Our Time Will Come, about Hong Kong subversion of the Japanese occupation during WWII. Interestingly, many of my local friends in Hong Kong expressed surprise at my interest in the film, instead suggesting that I go see Dunkirk, the high-profile Euro-American coproduction from Hollywood A-lister Christopher Nolan, which like Our Time Will Come is also a WWII film about resistance to Axis powers—but from the more globally commonplace cinematic perspective of the Allied front. Such preference for a Hollywood blockbuster over a product of one’s own culture is ironic, and it is worth exploring what is lost when Hong Kong’s once vibrant local cinema is so easily eclipsed. While it is perhaps impossible to ignore Hollywood’s multi-million-dollar publicity machine, Hui’s Hong Kong-focused depiction of WWII is an important alternative to cinematic depictions of world history. By critically exploring the respective legacies of these two recent WWII films, we can gain important insights—not just into our past but also our shared future.

This year’s timely juxtaposition of Dunkirk and Our Time Will Come is convenient and not coincidental. War films have a long and hallowed history in world cinema, and in this well-known canon no war has more familiarity and representation than WWII. Commonly known among Western history buffs as the “good war,” the Second World War is an easy episode to understand, in which forces of democracy and freedom expelled the world of rapacious and genocidal evil. It’s a story ready-made for the movies, and the flag-waving, feel-good triumphalism of that narrative was further reinforced cinematically by a remarkable partnership between Hollywood and the US military. Recognising film’s unique power in promoting the Allied cause, during WWII movie stars like John Wayne were allowed to serve by acting in war films and leading Hollywood directors like Frank Capra leant their expertise to helming recruitment and propaganda films. Dunkirk is just the latest in what is now more than a half-century of Hollywood movies about America’s last unequivocally good war and, like Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Dunkirk embodies both Hollywood nostalgia about Western military supremacy and individual directorial desire to command the kind of pyrotechnics and armies of extras and vehicles that can only be greenlighted with the commercial promise of a blockbuster.

Hong Kong cinema is no less motivated by these pecuniary issues as Hollywood, but Hong Kong’s difference in location and perspective offers an important glimpse into the changing vocabulary of world film, as well as how cinema indexes contemporary geopolitics. John Woo, speaking of Red Cliff (2008), his epic period film about a famous battle during the Han dynasty, has acknowledged the pleasures of directing a “war film.” And if it is surprising to hear the auteur of Hong Kong urban crime dramas describe wuxia costumery in the modern terms of Hollywood war genres, it should be even more intriguing to approach the most extensively movie-rendered war in history not only from the different perspective of Asian bodies and the non-Western film tradition, but also especially from that of a female filmmaker.

Ann Hui has long been praised for her intimate, often indeterminate explorations of contemporary social life, often centred on female characters, and Our Time Will Come is no exception. Unlike Dunkirk‘s self-aggrandising 70mm scale and all-male cast, Our Time Will Come is shot extensively indoors and in tight, almost claustrophobic frames that keep the emphasis on faces and interiors, private subjectivity. Because the characters are women, these unobjectified and relatively non-sexualized images are both a radically different vision of women than is typically available in most commercial cinema, and, in the specific context of Our Time Will Come‘s war setting, also a means of conveying both the hardship endured by Hui’s main characters and how women were able to exploit their relative invisibility and perceived domesticity to undermine the Japanese occupation.

American scholars of war movies like Thomas Schatz and Jeanine Basinger might thus categorise Our Time Will Come as an atypical war movie, less focused on battle, hierarchy and group dynamics than it is on espionage, individual relationships and the homefront. Yet it should also be significant that Hui, commanding in this Mainland-funded film one of the biggest budgets of her long career, still chose to keep the camera on women, deliberately eschewing the macho saber-rattling of Hollywood “good war” movie conventions to instead present endurance and ingenuity as central to Hong Kong history and prosperity. (This point about the film’s remarkable inversion of gendered conventions in national mythology is explicitly made in Our Time Will Come through a frame narrative, which begins with a faux documentary in which Tony Leung Ka-fai plays a now aging former errand boy for the resistance, who recalls how his “big sister” in the cause saved his life by excluding him from the most dangerous missions. The film then concludes with a dramatic establishing shot of modern Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, vividly asserting these women’s roles in ensuring such urban vitality.)

Equally revolutionary as the film’s gender reversal of war movie conventions, of course, is the racial perspective in Our Time Will Come. Although well-known Hollywood WII movies like Bataan (1943), Flying Tigers (1942) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) are also set in the Pacific theatre, Hui’s film applies similarly high production values to the war as it was experienced by Asians themselves. This remarkable shift in war filmography should be especially evident to those less versed in regional cinema and the war’s impact on populations outside of Europe and the Western world. Dunkirk has been justly criticised for omitting the many colonial soldiers from Africa and South Asia who also served during the evacuation. By suppressing this factual history of ethnic diversity, the film revives tired conventions of alabaster officers and plummy British voices that don’t seem to have changed in the six decades since The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Indeed, in 2017, a year when backlash against whitewashing of Asian and Asian American roles in entertainment media has been unusually vocal, it shows that the most antiquated, lumbering aspect of the film Dunkirk is not its period weaponry and vintage air- and sea-craft but rather the retrograde politics of the movie itself.

Among knowing Hong Kong film fans, however, some resistance to Our Time Will Come likely arose because of the casting of Mainland star Zhou Xun, whose Cantonese dialogue was dubbed and whose lead role in an assertively local story might also seem a painful reminder of China’s subsuming of Hong Kong’s once dynamic cinema (and global influence more generally). Yet unlike so many of the recent coproduction films in which Hong Kong talent is drafted into service of staunchly nationalist Mainland-financed stories, Our Time Will Come strikes a balance between celebrating local history and pragmatically fulfilling surface accommodationism. Hui skates a fine line, but as I and many other film scholars and cultural critics have noted, covert operations and a canny ability to negotiate seemingly contradictory purposes have long been central to Hong Kong success. By simultaneously celebrating ethnic Chinese resistance to Japanese power while also depicting it as a specifically Hong Kong achievement, Hui astutely fulfills the expectations of her Mainland financing while still upholding local identity.

“Local,” of course, is a dangerous word in the aftermath of the divesting and jailing of lawmakers and activists associated with Hong Kong’s self-determination movement, but while cinema’s flickering images may not have the same material impact on state policy as legislation and public protest, I still want to underscore the significance of this “Hong Kong” film’s quiet alternative to the bellicose bluster of both Hollywood war movie blockbusters and Chinese soft power. In American history and cinematic tradition, WWII conventionally marks the emergence of US global supremacy, but Dunkirk‘s anachronistic British emphasis and especially the odd, rather anti-heroic narrative of retreat and institutional failure is perhaps an especially apt metaphor for today’s Western decline. (This lesson, however, may be too subtle for viewers seduced by choreographed dogfights and elaborate water disaster sequences.) Equally appropriate—albeit in far less globally publicised release—the Hong Kong-China coproduction about WWII, Our Time Will Come, is a Sinophone engagement of that same time-honoured tradition of a current superpower cinematically locating its origins in WWII. As a Chinese-language WWII film, Our Time Will Come exemplifies Asia’s new position as a global leader, and is comparable to Hollywood movies like Patton (1970) and The Great Escape (1963) for cinematically consecrating collective mythologies of national origin. But as a female-centred, distinctly Hong Kong story of covert operations and undercover resistance, Our Time Will Come at the same time also manages a characteristically Hong Kong plot of peripheral ingenuity in subverting imperial power.

It’s telling, I think, that when I watched Our Time Will Come in Hong Kong, the audience was a mix of twenty-somethings and over-fifties, with the younger audiences detached but curious and the older viewers clearly moved. For these two generations—that which remembers the progress from sacrifice to prosperity and those who don’t know a time before Chinese sovereignty—Our Time Will Come offers an evocative glimpse into the regional experiences of global transformation. Unlike Dunkirk—an overwrought and ultimately apt sign of Western decline—Our Time Will Come‘s Asian variation upon the largely Hollywood-identified tradition of WWII movies vividly acknowledges twenty-first century Chinese supremacy. And yet unlike recent Mainland military blockbusters such as this year’s Wolf Warrior 2, Our Time Will Come‘s unconventional feminine focus and resolutely Hong Kong-based story also retains aspects of contemporary Western self-examination, using its Hollywood-style nostalgia to mull a liberal heritage that may now well be over.

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Karen Fang is the author of Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film (Stanford University Press 2017), which shows how Hong Kong cinema’s unique plots and images regarding surveillance and social control provide valuable insights into the world today.   She is a literature and film scholar based in the US, and earlier this year also contributed to Cha an essay about Hong Kong works such as the film, Ten Years and Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years, as well as a piece in the Hong Kong Press about the professional consequences to the Ten Years filmmakers.

 

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