Revisiting Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Stalker this past weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I was struck by Tarkovsky’s audacious anticlimax, which I now consider crucial to the film’s unique power. After more than two hours of following the three principal characters as they search for the mythical Room—which is believed to grant the innermost wish of whomever enters it—Tarkovsky declines to reveal whether the characters actually go inside the Room once they find it. This elision strengthens rather than weakens the film’s central theme of faith. Throughout Stalker, Tarkovsky raises the possibility that the Zone (which houses the Room) does not contain magical powers, as the title character insists. This forces viewers to question whether the characters’ quest is worthwhile or not—effectively making audiences undergo their own spiritual journey. By not showing whether the characters have their wishes granted (or even choose to ask for them), Tarkovsky makes viewers complete the story in their imaginations, their resolutions dependent on their own sense of faith.
Hong Kong director Ann Hui (Boat People, A Simple Life) achieves something similar in the conclusion of her latest film, Our Time Will Come, which is currently playing at the River East 21. Our Time tells the story of several members of the Hong Kong Resistance during World War II. It ends with shocking abruptness, denying viewers a definitive sense of victory or defeat. In the final minutes, Hui presents two Resistance members agreeing to carry out tasks for their movement as they stand on a beach at night. Rather than show the results of their missions, Hui cuts to an image of the Hong Kong skyline of today; she then shows a taxi driver in the present (who had appeared in interview segments throughout the film) getting in his car and going to work. With this conclusion, Hui and screenwriter Jiping He downplay the acts of individual Resistance members to consider the history of Hong Kong as a whole. The taxi driver, who had assisted the Resistance as a boy, clearly carries memories of the movement in everyday life; his present-day remembering, Hui and Ho seem to be saying, is just as important as the actions carried out by the Resistance in the past.
The simple acts with which Hui and He end Our Time convey a continuity with the rest of the film. The heroine, Lan Fong (Zhou Xun), and her mother (Deanie Ip) contribute to the Resistance by housing members who are about to carry out dangerous missions and by transporting propaganda leaflets that encourage others to aid the movement however they can. These actions shape the flow of the characters’ everyday lives but don’t disrupt them. Lan and her mother still address their personal concerns and remain involved in their immediate community—vigilance and self-sacrifice define their citizenship without overwhelming their lives. In a community where everyone does her part, Hui and He suggest, the personal and political reinforce each other. It’s too bad Hui already made a film called Ordinary Heroes (1999); that title would have worked perfectly here.
Like most of Hui’s films, Our Time‘s subtlety is entrancing, withholding big dramatic moments to consider everyday behavior. This strategy speaks to Hui’s tremendous gifts of directing actors and establishing a sense of place. Her characters make serious moral decisions based on their connection to where they live and how they perform simple actions. Mrs. Fong’s gradual acceptance of the Resistance members living in her home provides a fine example of Hui’s refined dramaturgy. Ip’s character never experiences an epiphany where she realizes the importance of the cause; instead she grows accustomed to seeing Resistance efforts in her life and becomes a part of them. The basic act of preparing food takes on a new meaning when Ip decides to cook for the Resistance members. The care she takes in her preparation, which had previously conveyed a dedication to household duties, comes to represent a sense of national duty.
Hui’s attention to small details also makes for some genuinely suspenseful sequences. When the characters transport propaganda leaflets, one worries about the fate of the papers—how the characters will carry them and transfer them into other hands without getting noticed. In one passage, Ip’s character sews a few leaflets into the hem of her shirt so she can carry them on a public water taxi. Hui presents several shots of the sewn hem, reminding viewers of how intimately she’s gotten involved with the Resistance and how fragile her protection is. It’s this passage—and not the romance between Lan and Communist fighter Kam-wing (Wallace Huo)—that forms the emotional heart of Our Time. It shows the complete transformation of a previously apolitical character into someone willing to risk her life for her country’s future.
Hui understands how such risks play out on a practical level. One of the first scenes of Our Time concerns a group of Resistance members discussing how to divvy up food among the Hong Kong intellectuals they plan to free from imprisonment. And throughout the film characters are constantly figuring out how to make use of limited provisions. Like Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Our Time is a movie about the innumerable working parts that make up a political movement. But where Soderbergh created an epic mosaic out of those parts, Hui zeroes in on a few and shows the maintenance required for their effectiveness. The film optimistically argues that anyone could take part in that maintenance. Hence the significance of that concluding shot of a present-day taxi driver: that spirit of collective resistance is still with us and always will be.