Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 03, 2022 7:24 am 
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Beautiful, subtly moving film about what it means to be a Hongkonger

This film is an elegant and gentle over-and-overing of themes of protest and repression surrounding Hong Kong and China. 1967, 1989, and protests of 2019 and 2020 are referred to. Protesters and pro-democracy leaders are heard from and seen. We go back at first to how people swam to Hong Kong to escape from the repression of the Cultural Revolution in China.

It is moving to see numerous men (no women) who were leaders in recent protests against the mainland repression of Hong Kong who are now in custody and have been held in prison for a year or more. The film is sophisticated, self-reflective in format, showing itself being made. A motif is to show actors, sometimes playing themselves, having their hair trimmed, blow-dried, and arranged to prepare for filming, and as they are seen, they are identified in their roles as protestors.

In this way the film is both detached and emotionally potent. The Variety review by Richard Kuipers calls this an "inventive blend of documentary and drama." Through this blend, the film works a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, making viewers more involved by distancing them, starting an imaginative involvement it then short-circuits. Outsiders can be moved and illuminated, but one might say the target viewer is one who knows already. There is no conventional exegesis or declarative narrative of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Protest Movement, but that is the subject.

This approach may not be understood by American viewers, as evidenced by Simon Abrams of complaining of "a thinly drawn narrative of historic events" and Ben Kenigsberg in on of the New York Times' lately increasingly superficial short reviews saying the film's "past-present parallelism" is "provocative" but also "seems faintly superficial" and (merely?) "a way of eliding distinctions and streamlining history." It would not be these things if you come to the film with the right knowledge and prior understanding. It would seem it is these reviews that are "thinly drawn" and "faintly superficial."

The film importantly is multigenerational in reference, bringing in older protesters early on and showing their direct link to their children or grandchildren who were arrested two years ago in Hong Kong. Young protestors are used to reenact the brave acts of their elders. We meet Chan Hak-chi, an elderly but still vigorous man who swam from China to Hong Kong with his wife Git Hing in 1973 to escape the Cultural Revolution. To play the couple in flashbacks young protestors Anson Sham Kwan-yin and Tin Siu-ying are called into service. Involvement in the past and detachment from it arrive together in a reenactment scene of rural outdoor community "education" come together in scenes such as a rural community education session in 1973 with a party official furiously extolling the virtues of “"great leader" Mao Zedong.

Chan then appears in the reenactment crowd and Sham asks him if it was like this, and he says no, in 1973 the meetings weren't so fervent. There are several other important mixed references of reenactment and documentary. Kenneth Lam, a pre-Tienanmen Square protestor who fled to Hong Kong after the June 4, 1989 massacre is played by2019 Hong Kong student leader Keith Fong Chung-yin. Recreations are mixed with footage of Lam attending the now-banned annual Tienanmen remembrance vigil. Chan is seen asking Fong to project his 2019 experience on his performance as Lam in 1989. Another important cross-pollination is having Kelvin Tam Kwan-long, an activist born after the 1997 handover, play Raymond Young, a loyal pro-People's Republic Hong Kong teenager who was jailed for participating in 1967 anti-British riiots.

It's powerful and disquieting to see Young today talk to Kelvin sitting on the floor of a prison cell about fear, doing time, and maintaining one's ideals. Young says prison time is hard to do but being out is harder: the ideals will erode over time. "We, the people of Hong Kong, in our 150 year history," asks Young, "have we ever been able to control our own fate?" After this, there are glimpses of a trial of the 2014 peaceful Umbrella Movement participants and the eloquent speech of one of them; a sentencing, left open-ended; and a series of portraits of recent accused "rioters" and their identities and statuses. Through the film is threaded moments of the man who swam from mainland China many years before. Whitehaired now, he still appears to swim in the ocean every day. He is one fit old dude - symbolic of human and Hongkonger survival, continuity.

A wise and passionate film about freedom and place that is also a work of art.

Blue Island 憂鬱之島 ("Island of Melancholy") 97 mins., debuted at Rotterdam online Jan. 26, 2022, showed in New Directors, New Films (FLC, NYC) Apr. 30, and won the top prize at Hot Docs (Toronto) May 6; also CAAMfest and Taiwan. It released in Japan Jul. 16 (it is Japanese-produced). Now playing at Metrograph from Jul. 29, 2022 and streaming from Aug. 5. showing at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco from Sat., Aug. 6.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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