Ke tu qiu hen (Song of the Exile), based on director Ann Hui’s semi-autobiographical story, tracesthe post-World War II life of a Japanese woman married to a Chinese Nationalist soldier, her adolescent daughter’s discovery of her mother’s ethnicity, and their reconciliation as she accompanies her homesick mother back to her native town in Japan. Moving between the past and the present through a series of extended flashbacks, the story is set in the 1970s and takes place across China, Britain, Macau, Hong Kong and Japan. Academic analyses of the film frame it as an exemplary trope of border crossing, gendered modernity, genre transformation and exilic cinema (1). This essay will discuss this existing scholarship through a consideration of the film’s central motif of diaspora as the inheritance of exile. It will extend these frameworks through a focus on intimacy.
According to Arif Dirlik, a “critical diaspora” framework emphasises the places of arrival and departure (2). In Song of the Exile these locations are anchored by the experience of migration. Aiko (Xiao Feng Lu), the Japanese mother married to a Chinese soldier, left Japan to work in Manchuria and has resettled in Hong Kong. Hueyin (Maggie Cheung), the eldest daughter, moves between Britain, Hong Kong, Macau and China. Huewei, the younger daughter, is about to migrate to Canada. Ah Reng, the father, works in Manchuria and Hong Kong. Hueyin’s Chinese grandparents are exiled in Macau before returning to Guangzhou. While inhabiting the diaspora, each character embodies the in-betweeness of diasporic consciousness while also yearning to return to their respective homelands. As the film progresses, each character physically returns: Hueyin to Hong Kong, Aiko to Japan and the grandparents to China. These journeys of migration are represented in the film through the motif of travel. The images of bicycles, ferries, rickshaws, boats, buses, trains and harbours punctuate the film as the protagonists move from place to place.
The film’s opening sequence locates Britain as the colonial homeland of Hong Kong and introduces Hueyin’s marginality. Although she is a naturalised British citizen, she faces everyday and institutional discrimination as an ethnic minority. British cultural hegemony is evident in iconic and indexical markers such as the use of the English language, the British Museum, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge and the BBC. These signifiers frame the monumentality of the British Empire and the pull of the metropolitan centre. The lyrics of the Bob Dylan song we hear decentres this hegemony by connoting the impending British withdrawal from Hong Kong.
China appears in the last sequence when Hueyin visits her ailing grandfather. After years of self-imposed exile, the Kuomingtang (KMT) nationalist-supporting grandparents finally return to a communist China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. Their deep yearning for an imagined homeland is symbolic of the exile’s dream of home. Homeland is fetishised through the myths of a primordial Chinese culture, represented by Grandfather through Confucian Chinese patriarchy and bourgeois nationalism (e.g. poetry, classical literature, calligraphy). Upon their arrival, the nationalist returnees are marginalised. Space is represented through tight framing and dark lighting, signifying the claustrophobia that reflects the liminality of Hong Kong postcoloniality and the impossibility of a return to an original homeland.
Japan appears in the second half of the film when Hueyin accompanies her mother, Aiko, to her hometown. As a Japanese exile, Aiko’s imagination of Japan is fetishised through the seeming authenticity of food, the familiarity of language and the comfort of the family home. As a Hong Kong exile, Hueyin experiences acute otherness in Japan. She is constructed as a foreigner and a stranger. As she comes to accept her bicultural Chinese-Japanese identity, Japan becomes a place to re-imagine her diasporic inheritance. Similarly, as Aiko comes to accept her enculturation, Japan also becomes a place to re-imagine her exilic consciousness.
The unhomeliness of home in China and Japan shows how intimacy in the diaspora requires a different genealogy more explicitly tied to the experience of exile. Rather than utopian, diasporic intimacy is dystopian. In China, home is dark and lacking in nourishment. It is also chaotic and unpredictable. This is opposite to the fantasy of how identity can be recovered through nostalgia for a lost home or homeland. Rather than care and belonging, this home is intimated through domestic violence and clandestine rituals. In Japan, friendship and love are marked by hypocrisy and betrayal. Dead sons and un-filial brothers undo the kinship of the family. Incomplete families also expose the big family house as hollow and empty. Diasporic intimacies expose the myth of home as domestic, familial and romantic.
Macau and Manchuria represent the “second home” of the exilic experience. Macau is the diasporic home for the grandparents, Aiko and Hueyin. Homemaking rituals are haunted by memories of home. Daily tension caused by mutual mistrust is expressed intimately. Food conveys warmth and censure. Eating is a proxy for hostility and alienation. Touch is fragile and cozy. Without the prodigal son and with a foreign daughter-in-law, the protagonists make up an improper family with no pure bloodline or dutiful piety. Intimated rather than directly interpolated, Hueyin’s affirmation of her mother is expressed distantly. These imperfections of diasporic intimacy, such as “precarious affection”, “improper family relations”, and “indirect recognition”, characterise the second home.
Manchuria is a diasporic home for Ah Reng and Aiko who work as a translator and a nurse respectively. Although Hueyin is not born in Manchuria, this is where her parents met and married. Hearing this encounter as a 25-year-old, Hueyin’s subsequent re-imagining reflects the experience of delay. Unlike the immediacy of normative intimacy, diasporic intimacy is belated (3). The intimacy of the second home is constructed differently due to this experience of belatedness. With no internal shots, the second home is a refugee camp. While food is rationed and life is hard, these are compensated by the secret luxuries of smuggled provisions, new friendship and forbidden courtship. These intimate contacts provide a new ontology for Hueyin. As inter-ethnic marriage between the Japanese and Chinese at that time was a taboo practice, her Sino-Japanese mixed race heritage challenges specific conceptions of ethno-centric descent and decentres Chinese and Japanese heteronormativity.
Unlike the original homelands and second homes, the family home is the one in Hong Kong where the father, mother and two daughters eventually settle. The family home of 1963 appears in Hueyin’s flashbacks. Rather than a mythical place of security, comfort and belonging, the patriarchal family home is recast as a divided, hostile and furtive space. The 1973 setting of the maternal home shows how reparation is a contradictory process of confusing sentiments. Unlike the alienated Hueyin, the doubly exiled Aiko is at home in this place. The film uses her proficiency in Cantonese, Chinese cooking skills and knowledge of Chinese customs to question the authenticity of Chineseness. Further using elements of postcolonial feminist autobiographical cinema and melodrama, the film recasts Hong Kong as a maternal home that transforms the primordial identity of the patriarchal family home by disrupting the authenticity of identity.
Song of the Exile features many diasporas that question the nature of home and its condition of belonging. Its theme of migration reflects Hong Kong’s political transition and allows the film to deal with the broader issue of its postcolonial entanglement. Diasporic intimacy and second homes provide a new ontological and genealogical beginning to consider contemporary Hong Kong identity. The film’s confusion of the processes of division and reunification also underlies Hong Kong’s post-1997 return to China as a process of mixed emotions.
- Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997; Tani Barlow, “‘Green Blade in the Act of Being Grazed’: Late Capital, Flexible Bodies, Critical Intelligibility”, Differences vol. 10, no. 3, 1998, pp. 119-158; Patricia Erens, “Crossing Borders: Time, Memory, and the Construction of Identity in Song of the Exile”, Cinema Journal vol. 39, no. 4, 2000, pp. 43-59; Freda Freiberg, “Border Crossings: Ann Hui’s Cinema”, Senses of Cinema no. 22, 2002: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/hui.html; Elaine Yee Lin Ho, “Women on the Edges of Hong Kong Modernity: The Films of Ann Hui”, Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China, ed. M.M.-H. Yang, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp. 162-187; Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2001.
- Arif Dirlik, “Intimate Others: [Private] Nations and Diasporas in an Age of Globalization”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies vol. 5, no. 3, 2004, pp. 491-502.
- Svetlana Boym, “On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Homes”, Critical Inquiry vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, p. 502.
Ke tu qiu hen/Song of the Exile (1990 Hong Kong/Taiwan 100 mins)
Prod Co: Cos Group Prod: Nai Chung Chou, Deng Fei Lin Dir: Ann Hui Scr: Nien-Jen Wu Phot: Zhiwen Zhong Ed: Yishun Wang Prod Des: Zhongwen Xi Mus: Yang Chen
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Xiao Feng Lu, Feng Tien, Waise Lee, Zi Xiong Li
The mythology around Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles is better known than the film itself. After languishing in vaults for more than 40 years, Thom Andersen unearthed and sampled it liberally for his collage-like 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself. Finally, after not having been seen since before the Civil Rights era, The Exiles is now screening at independent cinema venues around the country.
Set in LA’s majestically decrepit Bunker Hill neighborhood, The Exiles documents a nocturnal half-day of a group of Native Americans whose primary activities are (cue Cassavetes comparisons): drinking, gambling, and partying. Men take center stage: their existence is immediate, catering to their desires. Homer mumbles in a characteristic voiceover, “When I go to a bar I don’t like to just sit around; I like some kind of excitement. Get into a fight or something.” Mackenzie’s LA teems with people, heat, temptation, and tension, but the characters laugh right through it, and as in Cassavetes’s Faces, their laughter is more ominous than joyous, a defense mechanism compensating for the grind of hand-to-mouth existence. “When I do something I like to do it,” the anarchic Tommy Reynolds says. “A person who lives a regular life … they want to live the way I do but just can’t do it.” They drink and drive, disrespect their wives, hustle like hell, and gradually it becomes apparent that there’s a philosophy behind the mayhem: doing time on the outside is the same as doing it on the inside, so live hard and be free while you can.