All images from Song of the Exile (Ann Hui, 1990)

In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the details that left many of my friends with flayed hearts left mine mostly intact: the too-real viscera of the film’s tumultuous mother-daughter relationship. Not that I didn’t know those fraught scenes: for years, my mother and I had been caught in near-daily crossfires of screeching and 90-decibel cruelties—but not like that. Last month, when I saw Ann Hui’s Song of the Exile (1990) at Light Industry, I watched Maggie Cheung as Hueyin, a 25-year-old Chinese woman just home from grad school abroad for her sister’s wedding, locked in verbal fisticuffs with her mother, and I thought… JUST like that. It was probably the Mandarin, first of all, the language with which I had learned to argue and weaponize my hurt. In the film’s main timeline, mother and daughter fight in the late-night glow of a lone TV (about Hueyin’s disinterest in family; her reluctance to get matching perms for the wedding), and in flashbacks, over lamplit dinners (with the usual threats of a supercilious teen daughter: “I’d be ashamed to ever act like you!”). As Hueyin and her mother hurled cheap shots on screen, I heard invectives in a cadence that mirrored my own mother’s, a voice flecked with familiar hits of anger and love. There were lines that seemed picked from a catalog of my teen spite, the same string of words in a fight about the same, uncanny things.

Later, I learned that those weren’t even their real voices, all the Mandarin just a trick of dubbing over the original Cantonese. It’s a fitting lapse on my part (as another foreign-educated 25-year-old whose immigrant mother will never know her life), since Song of the Exile is about the homes and selves we build in language, and how their loss during migration compels us towards other forms of diasporic intimacies. After we’ve clocked Hueyin’s fussy mother, Aiko (Hsiao Fen Lu), as Chinese (she’s fluent), we discover that she’s actually a Japanese immigrant, a fact Hueyin learns late into her adolescence, years after it had been relayed to her younger sister. In the former puppet state of Manchuria, Aiko had met their father, a translator in the Chinese Nationalist army, and married him in the throes of Sino-Japanese animosity. When the film opens, he’s been dead for years. His widow is left scrambling to rebuild kinship with her daughters from the residue of his love, her loneliness made starker by the generational and cultural rifts that leave Hueyin and her sister on uncomprehending shores. 

But all this is meted out in slow glimpses and a narrative arc that loops and meanders. In an interview with BOMB a year after the film’s release, Hui doubted the film’s chances on the festival circuit for its formal and thematic vagueness: “It’s too much of a cross between things. It’s something between a commercial film and an art movie, something between a statement and personal, lyrical stuff—so it’s not quite anything.” But the not-quite-ness of Song of the Exile is precisely what makes it so specific. What better shape for the story of an immigrant’s eternal in-between—for life in a state of loss too ambient for words in any language—than something so amorphous? Song of the Exile is a braid of three tongues, opening with English in London, during the last days of Hueyin’s westward sojourn, then switching to Mandarin/Cantonese as she returns to Hong Kong for her younger sister’s wedding. We rove through flashbacks to Hueyin’s childhood in Macau and finally, after the newlywed sister moves to Canada, we follow Hueyin and her homesick mother to Beppu, a verdant isle in the south of Japan, where the film threads in spoken Japanese. These sites are all key coordinates in Hui’s own life, which scaffolds the film: Like her avatar, Hueyin, Hui was born in Manchuria to a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, moved to Portuguese Macau as an infant, then over to Hong Kong and eventually London, where she studied film as a grad student. 

By the time Song of the Exile premiered in 1990, Hui had already built a reputation as one of Hong Kong’s major directors. From her early television career in the ’70s to now, Hui has remained consistently active, with 32 features and counting. Unlike the names that dominate the international art house circuit—Wong Kar Wai, Stanley Kwan—Hui works on what she has called “the edge of the mainstream,” courting decent box office success in Hong Kong (an industry driven by commercial genres), but holding onto certain thematic idiosyncrasies. Against the crystallized consistency of auteurism, Hui’s style is protean and transilient with each film, which has made her a lot harder to brand. In Song of the Exile, a recognizable commercial mode—the family melodrama—grounds the film, but its narrative structure is all Hui’s own.

To return to a phrase from that BOMB interview: “between a statement and personal, lyrical stuff.” Even in the context of 1991, this dichotomy seems odd to me, but Hui was likely removed from the politicization of the personal that second wave feminism broadcast in the West. Many of Hui’s films depict explicit political action—the Japanese photojournalist who helps Vietnamese refugees in The Boat People (1982); the anti-colonial activists of ’70s and ’80s Hong Kong who advocated for Yau Ma Tei refugees in Ordinary Heroes (1999). Unlike these, Song of the Exile hews closer to “personal, lyrical stuff”—but how else do you tell the story of a mother’s exile? It’s a tension that reminds me of an idea Jacqueline Rose lays out in Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty—that motherhood is a site burdened by politics even as it seems separate from public life. “Why,” Rose asks, “are mothers not seen as having everything to contribute, by dint of being mothers, to our understanding and ordering of public, political space?”

In Song of the Exile, the postwar politics of the mother’s displacement reverberate in her daughters’ lives. Though, the “exile’’ of the film’s title is more evocative than literal—none of the characters are strictly barred from a homeward journey, nor have they been forcefully displaced. The English title is also a gesture at simplification; the original Chinese is far more oblique—客途秋恨 (kè tú qiū hèn)—literally, “Passenger Road Autumn Regret,” a lyric pulled from an old Cantonese song about a homesick traveller. If not an exile per se, then it’s Aiko’s foreignness that sows active strife. As we gather from childhood flashbacks, Aiko didn’t know a word of Chinese when she married Hueyin’s father, and her in-laws (who moved to Macau after the war but continued to stash their Nationalist hopes in the mainland) treat her with disdain, actively turning a young Hueyin against her mother. Still, Aiko’s “exile” culminates in a long-fantasized homecoming. Halfway through the film, she and Hueyin set off for Japan, and Hui stages a second-act pivot that fades Hueyin from star ingénue to supporting cast member. As Aiko alights the train to Beppu, her distant hometown, the film’s third language finally sneaks into the fray: “I’m home,” she declares in Japanese, to no one but the blue night. Hueyin looks on in silence.

A shot in the dark: this was the first line of dialogue in the film that drove me to the subtitles, which had been there from the opening shot, two rows of hardcoded English and Chinese text that claimed the lower third of the frame, irremovable as a shadow. These dual subtitles effect a strange dissonance between audience and diegesis: for those who can read English or Chinese, there’s never a gap in understanding, even when the film forays into Japanese. But for Hueyin, there’s no easy way to parse the barrage of foreign voices that overlap and blur in Japan. On their first day in Beppu, when mother and daughter lunch with a gaggle of Aiko’s old friends, the camera takes a second to spot our (former) protagonist amid the throng at the table. In her mint green sweater, Hueyin ebbs into the muted blues of the other women’s outfits, while Aiko’s loud red blazer marks her as a new locus of attention. Sometimes, I forget Hueyin hasn’t said a word in three or four scenes until Hui sneaks a stray shot of Cheung’s guileless face in close-up, wide-eyed and mute. 

It’s a loaded gesture of effacement that follows Hueyin’s literal displacement, twinning the shock of sudden Otherness with the changing vantages that dawn with coming-of-age. Here, it’s the realization that her mother had a life charged with as many labyrinthine emotions and obstacles as her own. I think specifically about the figure of the immigrant mother and the way cultural hagiography collapses her into one saintly dimension. She crosses borders and finds her way in strange new tongues, fencing off her past hardships from her children. For so long, Hueyin doesn’t even know that her mother is an immigrant, and even when she finds out, she’s stunned only fleetingly into empathy. A deeper intimacy becomes possible after a temporary migration of her own—jolted out of the complexity she’s afforded as a protagonist and made mindful of her mother’s comparable fullness. 

Hui has described the final leg of the film as a “reconciliation,” but just a year after its release, she considered the ending a little forced: “If I was making that movie now, I would have showed the whole situation as much less solvable—really just try to show the problem.” Funny, since the post-Beppu calm between Hueyin and Aiko has never struck me as a solution to anything, just exhausted acceptance as tender banalities supplant their fighting. “Mother seems to have changed too since her return,” Hueyin notes in voiceover, “She has become quiet and reserved. I have the feeling she’s suddenly turned old”—as though her mother’s brief homecoming has somehow hastened her ageing, like pressing “play” on the life she paused in her years abroad. I thought about the weight of Hueyin’s realization in Song of the Exile, her sudden inheritance of cultural memories she hadn’t known were part of her mother’s history—and so her own. Song of the Exile is striking in the way it parcels out knowledge of this history as a gradual, lived revelation—at first too close to see, as it was for me, but clearer with the passing years.  

Phoebe Chen is a writer and grad student living in New York.