Heroism in Wartime Hong Kong6 min read

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews Our Time Will Come, a film by Ann Hui


Chan Sui-jeung was one of the first adults I got to know in Hong Kong, back in 1990 when I moved there for a junior year abroad. The university assigned me to a host family that would take me in for Chinese holidays and perhaps a weekend or two during the school year. Chan and his wife May lived an hour from my dorm, but it was always a pleasure to trek out to Hong Kong Island to visit them.

At the time, I knew SJ Chan was a career civil servant and had a special interest in the Kaifeng and Hong Kong Jewish communities. But it wasn’t until several years ago that I learned Chan was also instrumental in resurrecting the story of the East River Column from World War II. His book East River Column: Hong Kong Guerillas in the Second World War and After narrates the heroics of Hong Kong residents who successfully evacuated hundreds of intellectuals from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong into parts of southern China that were not under Japanese rule. I’ve read about Chinese citizens and foreigners fleeing the mainland during WWII for the safety of British-run Hong Kong before the Japanese occupied it in 1941. But in this case, it was the other way around. Intellectuals in Hong Kong worried about persecution under the brutal Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, so a heroic group of guerillas in Hong Kong and southern China worked clandestinely to bring these writers and scholars up to “Free China.”

Members of the East River Column were affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, yet they worked closely with both the Nationalists (the Kuomintang, or KMT) and foreign troops. In his book, Chan describes how some of the guerrillas were rewarded with high-level positions in the Communist-run government after 1949, but their collaborations with the KMT and foreign troops during WWII would later come back to haunt them in a big way. When I finished reading Chan’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would have still fared as badly if more southern Chinese had been able to stay in CCP leadership positions. Could the southern Chinese have prevented China’s leadership from punishing people for their alliances with the KMT and foreign troops before 1949?

The East River Column recently came back to mind when I watched Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有), a new film by renowned Hong Kong director Ann Hui. At 70 years old, Hui is a veteran Hong Kong director known for making movies about displaced people. She knows herself what it’s like. Born in Manchuria to a Japanese mother and Chinese father, at a young age Hui and her family fled the turmoil of revolutionary China for Macau before ending up in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. She studied film for a couple of years in the UK and returned to Hong Kong in the 1970s to produce movies for the newly formed Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), an organization that cleaned up the Royal Hong Kong Force and rid it of the corruption that had defined it for decades. Her early feature films showcased social issues like the Vietnamese refugee crisis in Hong Kong. She also directed historical films based on Eileen Chang novels,  such as Love in a Fallen City, which also explores social displacement.

Our Time Will Come was released in Hong Kong on July 1, 2017 in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China. Like most contemporary Hong Kong films, this one was co-produced by a studio in China, and stars many well-known Mandarin-speaking actors (in addition to some of the Japanese characters). Even Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-fai spoke Mandarin in his supporting role, which earned him a nomination for best supporting actor in Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards. Hui and veteran Hong Kong actress Deanie Ip were also nominated for best director and best supporting actress, respectively.

The film takes place between 1942 and 1944 and tells the story of Fang Gu, a female guerilla in the East River Column, who started out by smuggling scholars staying at her mother’s boarding house to the docks in Causeway Bay before they headed north. Fang, played by Zhou Xun, was an educated young woman who rose through the ranks to become a captain in the Column. While Fang’s role in the East River Column grows over the years, it’s her mother’s character, played by Deanie Ip, who develops the most.

Old Mrs. Fang worries about young Fang Gu’s safety as the Kempeitai roams the streets of Hong Kong, rounding up girls and young women for their “comfort.” But Fang Gu is strong-willed and determined to fight in the resistance. She leaves home to join the East River Column full-time and doesn’t see her mother for months on end. Toward the end of the war, old Mrs. Gu is so touched by her daughter’s heroism that she joins the guerillas herself, risking her life to pass classified Japanese information to East River Column members in southern China.

Fang Gu has a love interest, Blackie Lau, played by Eddie Peng, a gangster wanted by the Kempeitai and instrumental to the East River Column. He and Fang Gu work together, developing a budding romance just before the end of the war. Another touching side story involves the friendship between the head of the Kempeitai and Fang Gu’s ex-boyfriend, Li Jinrong, played by Wallace Luo.

Back in the early 1980s, when SJ Chan was a District Officer in Sai Kung, he met former East River Column members and learned their stories as he got to know them. In the film we see how such conversations could take place years after the war ended. Ann Hui appears in a cameo role as a facilitator between Leung and others, who share stories of their involvement in the East River Column decades ago.

Our Time Will Come is a timely, feel-good film that shows the brutality of the Kempeitai and the heroism of Chinese resistance fighters played by a cast of celebrated mainland, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong movie stars. What could be more patriotic than that? Like most Hong Kong movies today, Our Time Will Come may have been made for a mainland audience, but this one doesn’t feel like propaganda. Instead, just as SJ Chan showed in his research, the film showcases Hong Kong’s important role during World War II, and the courageous people there during a very frightening and desperate time.

Chan passed away this winter at the age of 84. I would like to think this film is a tribute to his work. ∎

Ann Hui, dir. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有), July 2017.