If you’ve never heard of the Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, it’s a wonderful event cosponsored by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. 2016 marks the twenty-first year since the Festival’s inception in Washington, D.C., with a spectacular line up of films from July 15 through August 7 at the National Museum of American History.
Sunday afternoon featured the second day of a Salute to Kara Wai with a special screening of My Young Auntie (1981). The fifty-six year-old actress won her first Hong Kong Film Award for her performance in the funny and intense kung fu classic made by the Shaw Brothers studio. She plays a young student who marries her dying teacher to protect his inheritance. She delivers the deed to her new nephew and grand-nephew, but greedy relatives are not too far behind.
Because “Auntie” is roughly the same age as her grand-nephew, the film plays with family hierarchy and traditional practices like respecting one’s elders. Everyone in this family seems ultra-competitive in kung fu as well, which makes the fight scenes even more elaborate and humorous.
After the screening, Wai took the stage for a Q&A with Tom Vick, the Curator of Film for the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Wai’s success came about from a difficult life; as a child, she was “begging in the streets of Hong Kong.” She also sold cigarettes, gum, and small items to American soldiers coming by the city. When she was thirteen, she did stunts at the clubs and eventually performed during visits to the U.S. by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau. Her days in film began when she was sixteen.
In My Young Auntie, she is central to a number of fight scenes. It’s very intriguing that Wai did not have a background in martial arts. Rather, she was a dancer and stunt performer. “I could mimic the moves,” she explained. “I could learn on the spot from the choreographer and do it!”
Filmmakers were initially uncertain about making My Young Auntie, which raked in 8 million Hong Kong dollars at the box office with its success. “Until that point in the movie business, there had never been any female leads in any movie,” Wai said. “It was a turning point in Hong Kong films.”
It was difficult for Kara Wai to find roles outside of the kung fu genre for over ten years, and she ended up following other pursuits such as business. She returned to film in the early 2000s. While she enjoyed her years in kung fu movies, Wai would prefer not to focus on them. “I am a fantastic actor. There is no reason I couldn’t do drama,” she declared.
Wai shared that she does not focus so much on a particular role when she considers potential acting gigs. “The most important thing is the script: the story,” she said. “If I have a good story, I can play whatever role.”
The Made in Hong Kong Film Festival continues through early August. It spotlighted Kara Wai’s work on the opening evening with the world premiere of the drama Happiness. To find out more about films in the Festival, visit the Smithsonian Institution website. Admission is free.