The first line we hear in Boat People is a command—“Don’t look at the camera”—spoken to a group of schoolchildren in 1978 Vietnam. They’re beautiful, these children, beaming in their crisp white shirts and red scarves as they sing the praises of Ho Chi Minh and run a relay race through a watermelon patch. The camera they’re not supposed to look at is being operated by Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese photojournalist who’s visiting the country as a guest of the Communist government. Its hope is that he’ll help show the world the joy and prosperity of life in Vietnam’s New Economic Zones, regions of undeveloped countryside to which hundreds of thousands have been relocated by the regime. It is, of course, a seductive lie: days later, Akutagawa will slip back into this zone, this time without his camera, and see the stark truth of how these children, no longer smiling or singing, really live.
Well before it delivers that twist of the knife, Boat People (1982)—the fourth feature by Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, and the third entry in her celebrated “Vietnam trilogy”—puts us on high alert. “Don’t look at the camera,” an order meant to deflect children’s attention, has the exact countereffect of inviting the audience’s scrutiny. Already during this early visit, it’s clear that these idyllic sights have been orchestrated for Akutagawa’s benefit, even if he may not yet grasp the full scope of what is being hidden. “I don’t want things arranged for me,” he says early on, requesting the cultural bureau’s permission to wander off on his own. And so we follow him into the streets of Da Nang, where signs everywhere extol values like freedom and independence, but the injustices he witnesses—petty thefts and deadly explosions, a family evicted and loaded into the back of a police truck, strong-bodied men rounded up in crowded marketplaces and dragged away—tell a radically different story.
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