Course:ASIA325/2023/Ordinary Heroes (1999)

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The Poetics of Insignificance: Micro-political Narratives in Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes

Group Members' Contributions

  1. Introduction: EL
  2. Film Production: KY
  3. Histories of Reception: KY
  4. Literature Review: EL
  5. Comparative Analysis: KY (preliminary research and note taking), EL, KC
  6. An Alternative Interpretation: AL
  7. Conclusion: KC


Boats in the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter, Hong Kong 1970

The drama Ordinary Heroes is a 1999 Hong Kong film directed and produced by Ann Hui, and written by Chan King-chung. It first premiered in Hong Kong on April 10th 1999. The film follows the real-life events of the late 1970s and 80s, exploring the social activism within Hong Kong for the rights of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. As a post-Tiananmen Square film, much of its recounting narrates the experiences of leftists and Communist sympathizers within Hong Kong. The film stars Loletta Lee (Sow Fung-tai), Lee Kang-sheng (Lee Siu-tung), Anthony Wong (Father Kam), and Tse Kwan-ho (Yau Ming-foon).

Following the fictional story of Sow, who is a young woman with amnesia and struggles to recall her past, pieces of her life unravel through non-linear flashbacks. It is accompanied with the narration of Tung, Sow’s childhood friend who helps take care of her in her amnesia. Parts of her past reveal Sow and Tung’s prior involvement with an activist named Yau, and a priest named Father Kam. Both Yau and Kam are a part of a leftist activism movement that reveal the political narratives of the boat people, and the deportation of mothers within these families to mainland China.

The following sections will contextualize the background of Ordinary Heroes from its film production, to its public reception post-release. It furthermore provides an overview of some of the notable studies on the film’s cinematic forms, as well as Ann Hui’s distinguished career and approaches that allow her work to stand out from the New Wave era of cinema. By citing scholars like Gina Marchetti or Ka-Fai Yau, the review emphasizes Ann Hui’s cinematic intrigue as tied to individual, micro-political narratives paralleled alongside nation-wide political identities of Hong Kong in the 1970s-1990s. The focus of our analysis, both through the comparative case study alongside Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, as well as the alternative interpretation, thus emphasize the role of memory and individual narratives within storytelling as a quality distinct and unique in Ordinary Heroes.

Stories Behind the Film

Ann Hui, 2008

The Chinese title, Thousands of Words (千言萬語), is a reference to Sweet Honey (甜蜜蜜), a song by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng that plays during the film. Ordinary Heroes is a film that is based on the real life events and social movements of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, centered around the Yau Ma Tei boat people and their wives. The Yau Ma Tei boat people were a group of former fishermen who were forced to find work onshore due to their sinking boats. Due to their illiteracy and poverty, many of these fishermen were unable to find wives in Hong Kong. As a result, they married girls from small villages within southern China. However, these brides were not permitted on land and would be sent back to the mainland if caught. This lack of proper housing later prompted the Yau Ma Tei boat people incident. When the demand for public housing was not satisfied by the government, many protested in response. In January 1979, protesting boat people were arrested and charged with illegal assembly, and the original objective of receiving public housing accommodations turned to targeting the Public Order Ordinance which was used by the government as a means to arrest protesters. This crackdown on protesters led the boat people to believe that the government had no interest in allowing the social movement to continue, as they paid little attention to previous protests.[1]

Father Kam, played by Anthony Wong, was partially based on Franco Mella, an Italian Roman Catholic priest and missionary[2] who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974. Since his arrival, he has participated in various protests for underprivileged and disadvantaged groups in both the mainland and in Hong Kong. In 1978, Franco Mella was notified of the sinking boats in the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter. To better empathize with the cause he fought for, Franco Mella began to live in one of the boats in 1979 alongside the boat people. Much of his activism over the years  has focused on topics related to post-handover Hong Kong.[3]

Due to insufficient funding at the time, Ann Hui was forced to pay out of pocket to cover the costs of production for Ordinary Heroes.[4] After the release of Boat People (1989), a political film that focused on Vietnamese refugees, Hui received a reputation of being a filmmaker who focused on social and political issues. According to Hui in an interview describing her career, this reputation became more pronounced after the release of Ordinary Heroes in 1999. In response, Ann Hui expressed herself as someone who did not care for politics but enjoyed discovering the unknown.[5]

The rapid urbanization in 1990s and 2000s Hong Kong prompted the filming of Ordinary Heroes to be limited to only a few spaces which could properly depict the landscape of the city decades prior. Most scenes were filmed in poor neighborhoods, boat homes, public housing estates, temporary settlements, homeless camps, and at the typhoon shelter. Other scenes that required the display of the city’s public image were shot at the Legislative Council located in Central and the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui. The main cast of Ordinary Heroes consisted of Rachel Lee Lai-Chun (Sow Fung Tai), Lee Kang-Sheng (Lee Siu Tung), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Father Kam), and Tse Kwan-Ho (Yau Ming-foon), all of which were established actors at the time of filming. [6]

Histories of the Film’s Reception

Inside the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter

The film Ordinary Heroes was released in 1999, two years after the 1997 handover. It depicts Hong Kong in the late 1970s and 1980s, focusing on marginalized and impoverished communities who faced social injustices and were subsequently unable to keep up with the rapid urbanization of Hong Kong. The 70s and 80s were ridden with various protests which challenged the relationship between Hong Kong and its then-government, including the National Language Movement and the Anti-corruption Movement. These protests significantly improved Hong Kong as a British colony and set up its political landscape for the 1980s, the beginning of a long transition period. Due to the timing of its release, Ann Hui and other Hong Kong film directors of her time had the hindsight of the 1997 handover, making clear that many pre-handover concerns were never realized. Under the People’s Republic of China’s leadership, Hong Kong maintained autonomy to some degree.[7] However, the late 1990s also introduced a period of rising unemployment rates due to the 1997 Asian financial crisis.[8]

Following Ordinary Heroes’ film release, it received an award for Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2000 and was a winner at the 36th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.[9] It was also shown as one of the opening films at the 1999 Hong Kong International Film Festival.[10]

The film depicted the often depressing realities of Hong Kong during the 70s and 80s and experienced mixed reviews. Some film critics believed that the movie was over-dramatized or boring. One reviewer claimed that the storytelling in Ordinary Heroes was frustrating and scattershot. Another critic stated that though the film was admirable for depicting the reality of past Hong Kong, the message of the film was not impactful enough for younger generations who would not be able to empathize with the movie characters. Other members of the audience expressed their disappointment in the display of interpersonal relationships in Ordinary Heroes and other films directed by Ann Hui, as they felt that the relationships detracted from the film’s socio-political aspects. A review posted on the Hong Kong Movie Database on behalf of Hong Kong Superstars (a discontinued fan magazine from the United Kingdom that focused on Hong Kong cinema) stated that the modest box office results were due to a lack of sex appeal that was popular in early 2000s Hong Kong films. Overall, there was an appreciation for the film’s display of the uncomfortable nature of 1980s Hong Kong rather than creating a fabricated reality. Writers of the Hong Kong Superstars magazine recommended the film, but admitted that Ordinary Heroes is not a film that most would revisit due to its heavy topic. This seemed to be a shared sentiment among the audience due to the film’s lack of popularity when compared to other movies directed by Ann Hui.[11]

Scholarly Literature Review: Subjective Narratives in Ordinary Storytelling

Modern political cinema in Hong Kong has always posited itself with pride in its demarcation of traditional and normative narratives to ‘Chineseness’, yet ultimately embodies the visual exploration of its colonial history during this process. By negotiating its historical destiny through these re-tellings, Hong Kong cinema is emblematic of Hong Kong identity, characterized by its very major discourses of Hong Kong through the use of evidently minor characters. Following this criterion, Ann Hui’s film Ordinary Heroes (1999) can be distinguished from other Hong Kong films in its inherent ability to abstract the micro-politics of individual memory situated against the backdrop of nation-wide political narratives. As asserted by Mirana M. Szeto, Hui’s cinematic edge is not overwhelmed by “technical marvel or thematic deviance” but by its ability to ground its narratives in mundanity and the “poetics of insignificance”.[12] The film is set up in the late 1970s and 80s, a time when Hong Kong was undergoing strenuous economic and political transformation, and thus examines the activism which borne out of this period. It weaves its way between the flashbacks of the 1979 Boat People incident, and the retelling of this event a few years later. A young man named Tung takes care of his childhood friend Sow, as she experiences amnesia and struggles to recall her past. In flashbacks, the film sees their past involvement with leftist activist Yau, and Father Kam, a communist sympathizer who protests on behalf of the boat people and provides a voice for the subsequently deported mothers and wives in these families. Thus, this section seeks to review the ways Ann Hui’s cinematic choices allow spaces for the narratives of characters to flourish against the overwhelmingly dominant political identities of Hong Kong.

Scholar Gina Marchetti's career has been devoted to the research of critical and cultural theory within Asian and Asian American female filmmakers. She has written on Ann Hui's works in her book Citing China: Politics, Postmodernism, and World cinema.

By doing so, Hui establishes characters who are under the public eye deemed as ‘ordinary’, asserts the mundanity of everyday-life through her cinematic style and authorship, and finally, creates non-linear temporal spaces to reinforce the use of subjective memory and individualized storytelling in Hong Kong’s colonial history. By reviewing some of the works of Gina Marchetti, Esther M.K Cheung, and more, it becomes evident that Ordinary Heroes is a film that distinguishes itself through the use of onscreen and offscreen language.

While this synopsis cooperates alongside a culturally mainstream identity in Hong Kong, Hui pays careful attention to the irrelevance of storytelling and the use of minorities as a means to construct historically grounded narratives. Scholar Ka-Fai Yau examines the visualization of characters like Father Kam and Tung as abstractions of the “missing people''[5] from grand narratives. In Ordinary Heroes, the characters engage with their communities and surroundings in ways that are neither explicit nor extravagant. Rather, their activism and works are often silent and behind the scenes, not meant to invoke attention or admiration from the general public. The English title, Ordinary Heroes, also iterates itself in the form of an oxymoron, wherein heroes are generally ‘extraordinary’, but in this case are embodiments of the margins of society, stories that silently disappear into oblivion amidst the mainstream discourse of history.[13]

In an interview alongside Esther M.K Cheung, Hui is asked to describe the role of history within her filmography, yet she denies being political nor particularly interested in history. Rather, she positions her work as “venturing into the unknown”[5], allowing these stories to take on a higher level of realism, despite its inherently fictional quality. In other words, Hui ventures into unexplored territory within an epoch of highly explored events.

In an interview with Esther Cheung et al., Ann Hui explicitly states that her films tend not to be innovative in terms of language or technique[5], and unlike other Hong Kong directorial colleagues such as Wong Kar-wai, is not distinguished by a particular cinematic language and auteur. Rather, Hui seeks to adopt “different styles for different movies”[12] but always preserves the accessibility of its content to mainstream audiences, despite its significantly marginalized issues. Hui asserts her ability to work with people as opposed to making them work for her.[5] As articulated by Szeto, Hui’s cinematic edge is anchored not necessarily in technical prowess or extravagance, but in the mundane.[12] To create this case study of everyday life among ordinary humans, Ordinary Heroes embodies elements of docu-drama style footage, from shaky hand held cameras to candid dialogue exchanged between characters. Throughout the film, it is common for Hui to blend real life footage into fictional news footage, allowing the film narratives to engage the narratives grounded by historical reality. With “off-coloured and grainy” shots, her style for Ordinary Heroes appears to be reportage, as the film “locates the voice of history in Tung” in such a way that resembles a dramatized autobiography.[6]

Perhaps most powerfully conveyed, the function of memory as subjectivity in Hui’s films are what compels audiences to negotiate the ways her stories are constructed. Gina Marchetti identifies that the aesthetic framework which Hui follows in her style lends a narrative of multiple perspectives from multiple layers of time.[13] In Ordinary Heroes, temporal space is used as a device to dictate the knowns and unknowns of storytelling, lending a sensitivity towards “space and its relation to voice and memory”.[6] By interlacing and splicing time to manipulate narrative, it creates a disillusionment that creates unreliable and highly subjective narratives. As articulated by Lee, Ordinary Heroes garners a past that returns to “disturb the equilibrium of the status quo”, causing characters to confront repressed memories.[6] The literal inability for Sow to recall her past engages this dilemma of whether she is better off living in ignorance to her trauma, that would directly impact her perceptions of the world and her relationships. And while Hui caters to this idea, she also reinforces the micro-political confrontations for the ordinary individual, paralleled alongside the social politics and morals of their actions. Lee describes Sow’s memory loss as questioning notions of justice to be achieved only when turmoil and personal sufferings are endured.[6] In the same way, the love story depicted between Tung and Sow in the present and flashbacks actually impedes their chances of being together, as they never quite exist on the same temporal plane.

Sow and Tung, Ordinary Heroes (1999)

The recurring shots of Ng Chung-yin in his street performance are also used to disrupt the temporal plane but in a way that actually draws audiences back to the overarching subject matter which the film deals with. Gradually, shots of Ng show a “sensitivity towards space and its relation to voice and memory”, as the camera gradually reframes his performance to reveal more of his surroundings off-stage.[6] The very last moment this street drama appears connects to Tung’s return to Hong Kongs, Sow’s car accident, and the military crackdown in Beijing.[6] At this very moment, various fragments and temporal planes within the film intersect to spatially and visually link the power of memory. In toying with time and memory as vessels holding individual and subjective perspectives, Ordinary Heroes is equally about Hong Kong’s collective memory as much as it is about the power of individual memory to dictate future narratives.

As Ann Hui is commonly known for her ability to interlace a mainstream yet avant-garde spirit into her filmmaking, it becomes evident that the roles of her characters, her cinematic style, and the storytelling of non-linear narratives juxtapose yet serve as the bedrock of the historical-realities within Hong Kong in the late 1970s to early 90s.

Comparative Analysis: In the Mood for Love (2000)

Wong Kar-wai’s sensational hit In the Mood for Love (2000) produces a poetic 1960s drama between next-door neighbours, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. In 1962, Mrs. Chan and her husband move into a 1 room unit, and Mr. Chow moves in next door with his wife. When an implicated affair occurs between their respective spouses, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow become intimate, unconsummated companions with one another as a means to cope with their sudden isolation. As they “fabricate a fantasy world”[14] in which they are lovers like their spouses, they find themselves actually falling in love. While In the Mood for Love (IMFL) is a romantic film differentiating it from Hui’s historical drama, Ordinary Heroes, one can argue that both films position themselves within a love narrative, no matter how implicit or explicit.

In IMFL, Chan and Chow’s deeply intimate relationship is strung together by the fictional idea of loving the other, and yearning for a space where that is possible. In Ordinary Heroes, Tung and Sow’s friendship is explored deeply in its inconclusively long-unrequited romance. These similarities can be broken down into three parts: thematically, the two film’s extensive observation of love exists first within friendship. Secondly, it focuses on the micro-narratives of normal people against the backdrop of historically-grounded time periods, rich in implication of the political, economic, and social circumstances of its time. Finally, both films involve the use of temporal spaces, fragmented narratives, and the use of memory to develop subjective forms of storytelling.

Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, In the Mood for Love (2000)

Thematically, love emerges from the power of friendship. In Ordinary Heroes, Tung begins to develop a longterm crush on Sow following an encounter in which she pickpockets him.[15] As he runs after her in frustration, the beginnings of their friendship come from a place of accident and coincidence. Following many events over the course of the film’s years, Sow becomes involved with Yau, though Tung remains faithful to his love for her. Despite these years, Tung preserves his friendship with  present-day Sow who has forgotten her former life due to an accident. The quality of their friendship is not dictated by a love story, especially seeing that they are never truly romantically linked. It is driven, rather, by a faithfulness grounded in platonic love found in friendship first. Likewise in IMFL, the romance of Chan and Chow are never explicitly stated. The chances of their introductions are underpinned by the coincidental nature of their housing situation. The beginnings of this friendship are polite, conservative interactions in stairwells or halls. Later, their friendship derives out of a façade of fantastical romantic affection, a coping mechanism used to handle the reality of their respective spouses’ affair.

Additionally, both IMFL and Ordinary Heroes are concerned with character over plot. Despite both films involving a rich political, economic, and social contextualization of Hong Kong during its periods, it does not attempt to educate viewers on its history, rather to weave a narrative through the characters and their conscience. IMFL occurs against the backdrop of “new urban sensibility and increased openness to Western cultural influences”[6], a reality which Wong exposes through costumes, sets, and props. During a meal at a diner, Chan and Chow order food and proceed to converse in ways that their spouses would. The seemingly mundane nature of these scenes are driven not by the actions but by their internal processes of denial and acceptance. The long nights of getting food at a nearby market, going to the cinema, or receiving new goods from their spouses’ business trips become a flow of commodifiable and homogenous fantasies within the framework of global capitalism. While the film constructs a historical reality of the 60s, it also constructs a subjective narrative which thus questions the relationship between everyday and its historical references. Likewise, Ordinary Heroes posits itself on the narratives of ordinary people living within a politically unstable period of the late 1970s-80s. Towards the end of the film, a postcard from Tung is narrated aloud as shots of him walking through vast roads are contrasted with shots of boats in a typhoon centre, as well as real-life 1970s news footage of ongoing protests for democracy. As these clips are shown, his voice is heard saying

Sow, Ordinary Heroes (1999)

“I pray that my mind is like that of an infant, relying on God, now and forever."

These internal dialogues throughout the film persistently seek to elevate Tung’s individualized narrative against the backdrop of dominant, collectivistic political identities. His faith, philosophy, and reflections are posed as valuable within a grander narrative, making them interchangeable, if not equally important to Hong Kong’s historical identity. The final similarity identified through both IMFL and Ordinary Heroes is its focus on time and memory as individualizing people from the grand narratives of their community. IMFL is a linear film, but helplessly fixated to the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, memories, the burden of regret, and uncertainty for the future.[16] Though it moves forward temporally, the film is constructed to feel almost timeless, as though audiences are merely entering and exiting fragmented memories from Chan or Chow. The time jump into the future when the two characters separate after Chow’s departure to Singapore similarly embody an “displaced affect”[6] of trying to reconnect the past and present. When Chan visits the old apartment complex, the memory of the environment triggers her memories as she wistfully looks out the window. The next shot is Chow in the next-door apartment, looking out the window that would face Chan’s, however this as we learn are separate temporal planes; non simultaneous. The characters constantly “indulge themselves in obsessive reveries”[6], and Wong deliberately fragments time so that it becomes an “expression and agent of subjectivity”.[6] By the end of the film, a closing inter-title reinforces this message:

"Those vanished years, as if separated by a piece of dust-laden glass, can only be seen and not grasped. He keeps yearning for everything in the past. Had he shattered through that dust-laden glass, he would have walked back into those long-vanished years."

As Ordinary Heroes follows a non-linear portrait of time, Tung’s nostalgic narrative becomes the interface of his own recollections from the past which he tries to link to the present-day. As Sow copes with memory loss, the docu-style narrative lends a symbolism to Tung and Sow’s friendship, observing Tung’s grief of Sow’s memory loss as a pretext for a “soul-searching journey”[6] in which he searches for her. To Tung, the periodic revisitation of the past is an attempt to reconstruct his relationship with Sow. Meanwhile, Sow is actively trying to enjoy a present and to forget a deeply traumatic and scarred past. Time is displayed as a subjective agent, and the missing memories from each form a “variety of competing images”.[17] At the start of the film, Sow’s voice can be heard saying, “I remember”. By the end, it is heard saying “To not forget”. Yau articulates the setup of Hui’s world as one where short-term memories are absent, while long-term memories are preserved. In focussing its stories on ordinary people, Hui is able to generate notions of memory through its literal and figurative elements, as well as through individual and collectivist ones.

However, a key difference between In the Mood for Love and Ordinary Heroes is their approach to portraying history. In the Mood for Love constructs a fictional image, rather than a historical reality of 1960s Hong Kong. On the other hand, Ordinary Heroes portrays the history of Hong Kong more accurately, particularly during the late 1970s and the 1980s, a period of economic transformation and political transition, ending in the wake of the June 4th Tiananmen Incident in 1989. The narrative interweaves the flashbacks and voice-over of two key characters who look back to earlier times from the vantage point of the 1990s. In retelling the story of a group of social activists, the film seeks to interpret the social and political forces that shaped the destinies of individuals who came of age during the 1980s.

Close-up Shot of Mrs. Chan in the Diner, In the Mood For Love (2000)

Furthermore, In the Mood for Love and Ordinary Heroes differ in terms of their use of cinematography. In the Mood for Love employs various techniques such as close-ups, zoom-ins, slow and still camera movement, background music, repetition, and long takes to create a collective nostalgic feelings towards an imaginary past. The diner scene and the creative use of camera movement are examples of how the film utilizes these techniques to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia and yearning for the irretrievable past. On the other hand, Ordinary Heroes uses cinematography to portray the city's atmosphere in the late 1970s and 1980s. The film utilizes shots and sequences to depict the city's atmosphere, setting, and tone. For instance, the early scene at the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter introduces the main characters and their different social spaces through a well-designed shot sequence that subtly demarcates their positions. The intention here is not to create a nostalgic feeling, but rather to provide a realistic portrayal of the city and its people during that period. Overall, while In the Mood for Love creates a collective longing for an imaginary past through techniques such as lingering shots, music, and repetition, Ordinary Heroes recreates the ambience and ethos of Hong Kong in the late 1970s and 1980s through its cinematography.

Additionally, the two films differ slightly in the conveyance of Hong Kong. In the Mood for Love delves into the personal lives of Chow and Chan and their relationship, as well as the longing for an imaginary past. Conversely, Ordinary Heroes is concerned with the relationship between the city and the nation. Due to Hong Kong's location as a British colony on the southern border of China, it has an ambiguous place in Chinese history. The territory's cultural development has been significantly influenced by its "double marginality" concerning both the colonial administration and Mainland China.[6] One can interpret the sequence of events depicted in Ordinary Heroes that lead to the public outcry following the June 4th military crackdown as a way for Hong Kong to acknowledge and embrace its unique historical identity, which is influenced by both the colonial administration and Mainland China. As Lee argues, this can be viewed as a preface for Hong Kong to come to terms with its "double marginality" and understand its place in history.[6]

Ultimately, In the Mood for Love and Ordinary Heroes are two films that portray different aspects of Hong Kong's past. While In the Mood for Love constructs a nostalgic past that is not historically accurate and uses cinematography to achieve and evoke nostalgia, Ordinary Heroes is more preoccupied with the political history of Hong Kong, using cinematography to recreate the ambience and ethos of the city in the late 1970s and 1980s, and focuses on the broader theme of the relationship between the city and the nation through depicting personal stories.

Alternative Interpretation: Subjectivity & Memory

Ng Chung-yin's speech at a public street

Ordinary Heroes explores the micro-politics of individual memory against the backdrop of larger political narratives existing in Hong Kong. By doing so, Hui emphasizes the themes of individual perspective and subjectivity, which are evident throughout the film’s direction and cinematography. Throughout the film, individuals’ subjective perspectives shape their actions, and the director plays with these concepts of perspective through the non-chronological telling of the story, as well as the plot elements of activism and memory. These themes culminate in the scene of Sow’s car accident, where we see the collision of multiple fragments and narratives throughout the film.

Protestors alluding to political turmoils

In this scene, the physical context of Ng Chung-yin’s speeches throughout the film is revealed to be a street performance surrounded by hecklers. Through a slowly panning long take, the audience is able to see the reactions of the audience, offering a different perspective to Ng Chung-yin’s speeches as shown in their disapproving responses. This contrasts with the rest of Ng Chung-yin’s speech scenes interspersed throughout the film, in which the audience is only offered his sole perspective. In this moment, the viewer is led to consider how their limited perspective on the narrative may have been biased or unreliable, owing to its limited portrayal of other perspectives.

Furthermore, the camera movement as well as the interactions between characters highlight how Ordinary Heroes embodies elements of docu-drama style footage in order to create a case study of everyday life among ordinary individuals. The scene also reinforces the themes of subjectivity, as we are shown protestors alluding to the crackdown of Beijing, only meters away from the stage from which Ng Chung-yin has been delivering his opinions throughout the film. Tung, in the area, is waiting to meet Sow as they had agreed upon. In the following shots, we see that Sow has been hit by a car, and suffered from a head injury. It is a pivotal moment in the film as the audience realizes that Sow’s amnesia was caused by the head injury she sustained from the car accident, which split off her perspective and subjective memory from her past.

Tung & Sow converse over dinner
Sow is struck by the car, causing her amnesia

Another scene that highlights the theme of subjectivity and memory is the dinner scene first shown early in the film, depicting an interaction between Tung and Sow as she first begins to show signs of recovery from her amnesia. Calm, non-diegetic piano music plays in the background as the camera pans between each

Tung and Sow's last meeting

character slowly over a lengthy take. As she recounts her day, she remarks that she remembers the saleswoman that she saw at the boutique. In this moment, the non-diegetic music stops, and Tung is temporarily frozen in shock as he realizes Sow’s memory is recovering. He asks when she began to remember, and immediately apologizes to her regarding the lies he made about their past. After this revelation, Tung promptly leaves the dinner.

This scene is featured once again at the end of the film, after the audience is given the true backstory behind Sow and her condition. This choice results in the viewer’s own memory and perspective on this scene being subjectively different from the first time that we saw it, given the extra context. When the audience is shown the scene for the second time, they may have a different perspective and subjective view on the moment. This ability for subjectivity and ones’ perspective to alter memories is also reflected in the film. The second time the scene is shown, it is being recalled by Tung, and a non-diegetic flute soundtrack has been added which wasn’t present in the original scene, indicating how one’s view of the past can be affected by the subjective memories of itself.

The impact of both these scenes is heightened by Ann Hui’s directorial decisions to experiment with the temporal elements of the story. By telling the story using non-chronological techniques, Ann Hui is able to create unique moments as highlighted in these two scenes. She cleverly uses the viewers’ own relationship with their perspective and memory of the scenes to convey the themes of the story.


Ordinary Heroes received mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike, with some viewers finding its storytelling frustrating and scattershot, while others praised the film’s realistic depiction of the era’s social realities. It won the Best Film award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2000 and was shown as one of the opening films at the 1999 Hong Kong International Film Festival.[9][10] Ordinary Heroes was also a winner at the 36th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.[9] The film also received recognition for its cinematic forms, with scholars highlighting Hui’s ability to weave together individual, micro-political narratives with broader political identities in Hong Kong during the 1970s through 1990s. Despite the film’s modest box office results, attributed to a lack of sex appeal that was popular in early 2000s Hong Kong films, the film’s ability to ground its narratives in mundanity and the “poetics of insignificance” was praised by critics.[12]

Overall, Ordinary Heroes is a must-watch for those interested in Hong Kong's history, social activism, and political landscape. Hui’s unique approach to storytelling allows the characters to stand out. Furthermore, Hui’s use of non-linear temporal spaces adds another layer of depth to the film. By interweaving different time periods, Hui emphasizes the importance of subjective memory and individualized storytelling. The film’s exploration of memory allows the audience to experience the characters’ narratives in a more intimate manner, providing a nuanced understanding of Hong Kong’s colonial history from a commonly overshadowed angle. Hui’s unique cinematic choices, combined with the film’s emphasis on individual narratives and subjective memory, make for a compelling and thought-provoking viewing experience. For those with interest in character-driven narratives and Hong Kong’s history, Ordinary Heroes is not to be missed!


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  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 Lee, Vivian (2009). Hong Kong Cinema Since 1997: The Post-Nostalgic Imagination. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 43–65. ISBN 9780230245433.
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  10. 10.0 10.1 "Ordinary Heroes (1999) User Reviews". IMDb. Retrieved Mar 28 2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  11. "千言萬語 (1999) Ordinary Heroes". Hong Kong Movie Database. Retrieved Mar 30 2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Szeto, Miranda (2010). "Ann Hui at the margin of mainstream Hong Kong cinema". Hong Kong Screenscapes: 50–66.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Marchetti, Gina (2019). "Brecht in Hong Kong cinema: Ann Hui's ordinary heroes and Evans Chan's the life and times of WU Zhongxian". Citing China: 76–107.
  14. Ziauddin, Sherlock (June 10th, 2015). "Silhouettes, Shadows, & Smoke: Lighting in In the Mood for Love". Intermittent Mechanism. Retrieved April 2nd, 2023. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  15. Scanlon, Hayley (November 24, 2017). "Ordinary Heroes". Windows on Worlds. Retrieved April 2, 2023.
  16. De Querol, Guillermo (November 1, 2022). "Rediscover the Magic of Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love;". Joysauce. Retrieved April 2, 2023.
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