Ann Hui’s The Way We Are couldn’t be further from the loud, sensational flavours of Hong Kong cinema that win the most international attention. A quiet grass-roots drama of family and community, Ann Hui’s picture is an accomplishment of small, measured gestures, its soft-spoken tale marked with a great compassion for its characters. Backed by prolific commercial producer-director Wong Jing (uncredited) and made on an ultra-low budget for the small screen, the locally focused film eventually scored a well-attended limited theatrical run before topping critics’ lists and garnering awards nominations.
Helping to draw attention, for hometown audiences at least, is its setting in the satellite town of Tin Shui Wai, as referenced in the Chinese title. For several years, stories of crime, domestic abuse and suicide have come out of the low-income district, relayed in both the press and in movie houses. Earlier in 2008, Lawrence Lau’s Besieged City focused on sordid happenings in the district with a searing wayward-youth epic. But Hui’s film arrived as a quiet counterpoint, warmly extolling community spirit, family care and friendship.
Paw Hee-ching stars as Kwai, a widow bringing up her son Cheung Ka-on (Juno Leung) in a public-housing flat in Tin Shui Wai. Life is one of hard work for the devoted mother - household chores, a supermarket job, and not much else. The son is meanwhile awaiting his high-school grades and spending time with mother and friends, occasionally joining a Christian group despite being an atheist and having a crush on the older Miss Tsui (Idy Chan). Soon the pair meet an initially stubborn elderly neighbour (Chan Lai-wun), and she slowly lets them welcome her into their home.
Cinemagoers needn’t expect high drama at The Way We Are’s key moments. Shopping dilemmas, lightbulb changes and opening a durian take almost as much prominence as looking after a sick relative or attending a funeral, and a finale of Moon Festival celebrations is muted yet wondrously uplifting. Performances among the three leads and Idy Chan are uniformly restrained, natural and unhurried. And the overall pace of life around them is slowed down, too: the film opens with lush vistas of the International Wetland Park, the district has sights like a street barber, and there’s not a mobile phone in sight.
Shooting in HD, the filmmakers present often brightly hued imagery, from neon-bathed supermarkets to multicoloured building finishes. Charlie Lam’s cinematography is at top form, and editor Chow Cheung-kan from Hui’s TV days is on board as well. Filmmaking sometimes takes viewers by surprise with sudden changes of viewpoint or inserts of stock photos (as seen earlier in 1970s small-screen work), and often viewers are left to observe details when little is spoken. Hui followed up The Way We Are by shooting Night And Fog (2009), a second film set in Tin Shui Wai - this time tackling a shocking true-crime story based on a 2004 family murder-suicide but keeping an eye on connected social issues. The material in Night And Fog, like in Lau’s Besieged City, covers the unsettling material of tragic headline news, but it’s fortunate that Hui helmed this quieter picture first. The great appeal of The Way We Are is its touching look at Hong Kong society and people on its fringe, all shown in a dignified, sympathetic light. And thanks to that, The Way We Are ably transcends its low-budget, modest origins to become a heartwarming highlight in recent Hong Kong cinema.