Boat People was directed by Ann Hui, and is considered one of the key films of the Hong Kong new wave of the 1970s-1980s—Wong Kar-wai is the most notable director in this movement. Run Towards the Angry Sea is the translation of film’s original Chinese title, with Boat People being tacked on later to cater to the US audiences who were familiar with the term as a description for Vietnamese refugees. The film was inspired by the influx of Vietnamese refugees into Hong Kong at the time.
The story centres on a Japanese photojournalist, Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam, who is better known in Hong Kong as a singer rather than an actor). Akutagawa returns to Vietnam a few years after the war, and finds that the government is staging lots of spectacles claiming that Vietnam is doing great under Communist control. Obviously, it’s not. He meets families and children, and gets caught up in trying to help a family escape. Lam’s role was originally supposed to go to Chow Yun-Fat, but as a rising star at the time, he was worried about being blacklisted.
Boat People is a pretty good movie, but remains controversial in some circles because the Chinese government helped fund it. It has been accused of being propaganda aimed at the Vietnamese government, which is a simplistic and stupid take. Of course, it’s not a pro-Vietnamese government film either, but that’s not a hard point of view to understand either. The film it’s most similar to is The Killing Fields, which it predates by a couple years. An entrant at the Cannes Film Festival when it came out in 1983, it was forced out of the Palm d’Or competition due to opposition from “left-wing” filmmakers—I would be shocked if Godard was not one of these –and the French government at the time was trying to curry favour with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam so there was pressure from the highest echelons in France as well.
It’s well-shot, with some really striking compositions. The last half gets a bit cheesy, with an ending that’s a little over the top and goes in more of an action-movie direction. It was made mainly shot in Cantonese, which was also controversial, as was placing a Japanese character in the middle of the action.
Critically, the film has its fans but has also garnered plenty of negative responses. However, Boat People is pretty effective, and is good at showing how the Vietnamese government was covering up atrocities. It might be a little too melodramatic for its own good, but is also uncompromising with some of the violence, creating a contrast with its more melodramatic aspects. Others have seen it as an analogy for the return of Hong Kong to China, which was being negotiated at the time the film was made. It’s standing probably wasn’t helped by the director’s insistence that Boat People was not a political movie, while it obviously was.
The Criterion re-release is a 4K restoration with newly translated English subtitles, and definitely worth checking out. It comes with a conversation between Hui and filmmaker Stanley Kwan, who was her assistant director; a 2020 documentary about Hui, Keep Rolling, made by Man Lim-chung, who worked with her for many years as a production designer and art director; a 1997 documentary and self-portrait by Hui, As Time Goes By, produced by Peggy Chiao; press conference footage from the 1983 Cannes International Film Festival; and the trailer. Essays by film critic Justin Chang and scholar Vinh Nguyen round off the package.