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Boat People: Becoming Refugees

<em>Boat People: </em>Becoming Refugees

Why does someone leave home to seek refuge elsewhere?

This question is at the heart of Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982), which depicts the plight of those who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Made during Hong Kong’s New Wave of cinematic innovation and the second wave of Vietnamese boat refugees, Hui’s film provides a raw and moving response to that question by documenting life in postwar Vietnam—it shows how violence, unfreedom, and hopelessness forced people to risk everything by stepping into boats.

Boat People contains one of the earliest cinematic representations of Vietnamese refugees, and it is the culmination of Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy,” following The Boy from Vietnam (1978) and The Story of Woo Viet (1981). The trilogy’s final film distills the thematic concerns of its predecessors and focuses most explicitly on the driving forces of refugee migration. It was produced when the majority of those undergoing migration did not have access to the means of self-representation, when they were viewed primarily through news headlines and government policies. Although in the past few decades diasporic Vietnamese writers, visual artists, and filmmakers have begun telling their own stories, Boat People remains a rare and foundational text, one that portrays Vietnamese refugees as subjects worthy of narrative and ethical contemplation.

In the late seventies and early eighties, “boat people” fleeing Vietnam regularly washed ashore in neighboring countries. In the years preceding the release of Hui’s film, the number of refugees arriving in Hong Kong surged to reach its highest level. From 1978, when the second major wave of migration began, to 1981, the year before Boat People’s premiere, there were over ninety thousand arrivals. By the end of 1979, over fifty-five thousand refugees were housed in camps across the British territory. These numbers amounted to what is routinely called a “refugee crisis.”

Director Ann Hui

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