Keep Rolling (Hong Kong, 2020) [OAFF 2021]

Compared to fellow Hong Kong auteurs like John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui’s name isn’t as well known but this veteran filmmaker has quietly created a catalogue of varied works that have made her one of the world’s most acclaimed directors. Her most recent accolade was being a recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2020 edition of the Venice International Film Festival where her latest film Love After Love (2020) played. This came after a four-decade career that has notable achievements, such as winning Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards three times and Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards six times. With more film projects on the horizon, she shows no signs of slowing down despite reaching the age of 73. Trying to get a handle on such a career is intimidating, but the biographical documentary Keep Rolling provides the perfect entry into the life of Ann Hui.

Keep Rolling is the directorial debut by Man Lim-chung, a veteran art director and costume designer who has worked with directors like Stanley Kwan, Sylvia Chang and Pang Ho-cheung. Crucially, he has also worked with Hui on such films as July Rhapsody (2002), The Golden Era (2014) and Our Time Will Come (2017). These connections ensure his documentary provides an accurate assessment of her place in the firmament of Hong Kong’s movie scene.

At nearly two hours, Keep Rolling is packed with a lot of fascinating information about Hui. Taking a chronological route, it starts from her birth in North East China and runs through her formative years in Hong Kong and London as she falls in love with literature and film, her emergence with the New Wave filmmakers and her subsequent career, eventually culminating with her aforementioned Venice success. Each period centers on a moment of self-discovery, such as finding out her mother is Japanese, or a career landmark, such as working with King Hu as his assistant director and making a name for herself in television, or taking reality and social issues as the basis for her works. With each topic touched upon, we get footage from works which find direct inspiration from her life. While famous for capturing the quotidian aspects of Hong Kong and seeing things from a female perspective in her dramas, it’s equally fascinating to see how her love of literature led to The Romance of Book and Sword (1987). Probably the most affecting moments are when we get family background and Hui’s relationship with her mother. Hui used this as material for her film Song of the Exile (1990) and would later revisit her relationship with her mother, whom she still takes care of, with A Simple Life (2011). Finding out about the reality behind these films proves to be poignant, especially when Man intercuts some perfect scenes to illustrate how reality informs fiction.

To get details across, the film layers in a wealth of archival material, such as photographs from the 1960s and 70s and lots of behind-the-scenes footage from Hui’s film and television work. There are also many interviews with Ann’s family and fellow collaborators who all provide illuminating details that burst with warmth, admiration and some critiques that help to prevent the film becoming a hagiography. That luminaries in the international film scene such as Tsui Hark, Fruit Chan, and Andy Lau give their thoughts shows the importance of Hui. As interesting as they are, it is the family interviews that prove most illuminating with reminiscences of Hui’s brother and sister tying Hui’s film and life together.

Acting as a guide throughout this is Hui herself, who we accompany fly-on-the-wall style in both her personal and professional life which gives this documentary the feel of an intimate portrait. She also does sit-down-interviews where she reflects upon her life and shows sensitivity without any cloying sentimentality. Ann Hui talks a lot and it is always enjoyable to listen to. She is a top class raconteur, amusing, insightful, and also honest as she details her plus points and faults.

Despite all this detail, the film still feels nimble as it wrangles everything into a cascade of concise sequences and enjoyable interviews that flow effortlessly into one another. The chronological structure acts as a clear roadmap and upon reaching the end, audiences will feel well-informed about who Ann Hui is, her place in cinema, and the significance of many of her works. Whether you are a neophyte to Hong Kong cinema or an expert, you will find this to be the Ann Hui perfect primer and a great biography. All things considered, Keep Rolling is a perfectly apt title that captures its subject’s indefatigable nature and her love of the filmmaking process. If Ann Hui somehow isn’t as famous as her fellow Hong Kong directors, this documentary signals that her time has come.

Keep Rolling opened the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 5 and will be shown again on March 11.