Hong Kong's Ordinary Heroes

A decade-spanning retrospective at the International Film Festival Rotterdam is devoted to the social and political tensions of Hong Kong.
Sean Gilman
Above: We Have Boots
Last week was Lunar New Year, by tradition the most joyous period in the Chinese movie calendar, when all the biggest movies with all the biggest stars shining their biggest smiles take over the screens, wishing everyone the best in the coming year. But thanks to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan that has quickly spread across China and beyond, public gatherings have been discouraged and proscribed across the country, and the releases of all the major New Year films has been postponed indefinitely. Given the past year in the Chinese-speaking world, it’s understandable that folks may not see much to be cheerful about anyway.
The most dramatic on-going crisis in the Chinese-speaking world right now, though far from the only one, has been the series of protests that have been shaking Hong Kong off and on for the past six months. Initially sparked by a proposed change in the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law that would allow its prisoners to be extradited to Mainland China, the number of protesters grew into the millions, sparking brutal police crackdowns that have only further inflamed and divided the populace. The proposed law was eventually tabled and then withdrawn, but the protests continue, with no apparent end in sight. 
The extradition law was merely the catalyst; the issues undermining Hong Kong society are vast and have a long history, one which filmmakers have been exploring for decades. An extraordinarily well-constructed series at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (constructed by Shelly Kraicer, who also programs Chinese films at the Vancouver International Film Festival in addition to his role at IFFR) attempts to give some context to these fissures in Hong Kong society, exploring decades of poverty and helplessness among the populace, the actions taken to address these injustices, as well as a close-up look at the protests of the past five years: the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the as-yet-undefined and unresolved movement of today. The series is made up of a dozen features, dating as far back as 1973, and just as many short films. I was able to catch most of the features from the safety of my home in Tacoma, Washington.
The oldest feature in the series is The Delinquent (1973), credited to directors Chang Cheh and Kuei Chih-hung, though most likely Kuei was the dominant voice, albeit working with Chang’s regular crew (including screenwriter Ni Kuang and choreographers Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai). Kuei is best known in the West for his hyperbolic 80s horror films The Boxer’s Omen and Bewitched, and the film is most distinctive for its thoroughly modern visual style: wild handheld shooting in the streets and slums of Hong Kong, distorted subjective imagery, over-cluttered and rapidly cut fight sequences. It’s a jolt of modernism at a time when Chang was churning out gorgeously composed, stage-bound costume dramas for Shaw Brothers. But in many ways it’s a typical action film of the period: a young man who is a brilliant fighter but nonetheless arrogant, hot-headed, and unable to keep a job, is tempted into working for a local gang leader, but ultimately, when the gang targets his father, his moral sense prevails and he enacts bloody revenge. It’s the early depiction of contemporary social conditions, defined in Hong Kong as much as anywhere in the world by a cavernous gap between the rich and the poor, that make the film relevant to today: because even though the British and their laissez-faire approach to the Hong Kong economy are gone, the gap remains. 
But what struck me even more is an image from one of the film’s final fights. The young man’s father, trying to defend his warehouse against an army of goons, pulls out an emergency firehose and starts spraying his assailants. We see wave after wave of them washed away by the water cannon, an image with an exactly inverted meaning in the present, where water is the weapon of the police against protesters (and to twist the metaphor even more, where one of the movement’s mottoes is Bruce Lee’s admonition to “Be Water”). The IFFR series is not just structured by ideas, saying “these are a bunch of movies that show social problems in Hong Kong over the past 50 years,” it’s also, and perhaps even primarily, one structured by images. Again and again moments and pieces of these archival films will recur in the contemporary movies, echoes of the past taking on new meanings in the present.
Long Arm of the Law
Another example of this can be found in Johnny Mak’s 1984 crime film Long Arm of the Law. It’s about a group of former PLA soldiers who sneak across the border into Hong Kong in order to rob a jewelry store. The cash they get from one night of crime will set them up for life in the desperately poor Mainland. The thieves are, to a man, violent, cruel, and ruthless, yet we can’t help sympathizing with them, at least a little bit, as every bit of their plan goes wrong right from the beginning, forcing them into ever more desperate schemes and maneuvers. In the end, they are cornered in the dark labyrinth that was the Kowloon Walled City, a densely overpopulated warren where normal laws did not apply (it was where Johnnie To grew up). As the police close in on them (a surprisingly white police force, it must be said—normally in Hong Kong films of this period the British Hong Kongers are exclusively management, here they occupy the front lines along with the Chinese Hong Kongers), they’re decked out in full riot gear: masks, batons, guns, shields. It’s impossible not to see the echoes of contemporary clashes between cops and protestors.
Even more, in one of the documentaries on the protests (Evans Chan’s We Have Boots), we learn about a subgroup of the Umbrella Movement that became violently anti-Chinese immigrant, harassing Mainlanders who cross the border to shop in Hong Kong (for safer baby formula is the example) and denouncing them as smugglers and thieves. For sure, the hardened rapists and murderers of Long Arm of the Law are hardly moms looking for food for their children, but the fear of invasion from the poor of the Mainland remains the same.
Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong get a much more sympathetic look in Jacob Cheung’s 1992 Cageman. It’s about a run-down men’s hostel where the residents literally sleep in chicken wire cages, stacked on top of each other in a big concrete block. For most of its length, it’s a genial comedy about misfits, many of them refugees from the Mainland at one time or another (the midcentury wars led to a massive expansion of the colony’s population, far more than its housing or economy could accommodate), banding together in a spirit of community despite the dire poverty that surrounds them. It’s a type of film with a long tradition in Hong Kong (and around the world, see for example various adaptations of The Lower Depths, or Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons), best exemplified by Chor Yuen seminal 1973 comedy The House of 72 Tenants, the smash hit film that almost singled-handedly revived Cantonese-language cinema in Hong Kong.⁠1 It’s got an amiable cast of character actors, led by Roy Chiao (A Touch of Zen, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Teddy Robin Kwan (a Cantonese rock star who was a frequent bit player in 80s Hong Kong comedies), and Chinese-American actor Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness), and the film patiently details their lives as a young ex-con comes to live with them and two local politicians make grandstanding stays at the hostel. The politicians are there because the building is slated to be demolished, to make way for developers, but the men refuse to leave: desperate as they are, and as terrible as their living conditions may be, it’s still their home, and living in a cage is better than having no home at all. The final moments of Cageman are truly harrowing, as the cops inevitably arrive to drag the men away. “Officer, please don’t break my cage!” one of them cries, a lament as horrifying as it is heart-breaking.
If the communal spirit gives Cageman at least a little bit of hope, even that is missing from Gangs, the 1988 debut film from director Lawrence Lau (also known as Lawrence Ah Mon). Much like Ringo Lam’s School on Fire, which was released the same year, Gangs follows a group of high school kids that are inevitably drawn into a Triad gang war. But where Lam’s film focused its outrage, blaming the plight of Hong Kong’s poorest teens on the ways specific institutions (schools, police, government, family) have failed them, Lau’s kids have no protective institutions in sight: they are simply alone in a world of gangs, violence, greed, and crime. They slowly get picked off, one by one, killed, maimed, drugged, prostituted, drowned, kidnapped, burnt, and so on, until nothing at all is left. A decade later, Hong Kong cinema post-Handover would be dominated by a series of films about teen Triads launched by cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Lau called Young & Dangerous. His blow-dried and gorgeous gangsters would learn life lessons about honor and loyalty and brotherly bonding over some dozen or so films in the late 90s and early 2000s. They bear roughly the same relation to Lau’s film as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor does to Elim Klimov’s Come and See.
Damaged youth are at the heart as well of Fruit Chan’s 1997 Made in Hong Kong, the first indie masterpiece of the post-Handover era. Like the kids in Gangs, Chan’s heroes grow up in a world without (non-criminal) institutions, but unlike in that film, or Tsui Hark’s seminal New Wave masterpiece Dangerous Encounters—First Kind, the teens here attempt to carve out a new, freer space for themselves. They’re haunted (literally and figuratively) by the violence around them, but they still have some vague romantic hope that a better world is possible. Made in Hong Kong has been freshly restored and will be making it’s way to the U.S. in a few months. Look for more about it here in a future column.
From the Queen to the Chief Executive
Herman Yau’s From the Queen to the Chief Executive (2001) takes a wholly new approach to the story of violent teens, asking what happens to them after they’ve been arrested by the police. Based on a true story, he chronicles the plight of 23 men who were convicted as minors by the colonial government to indefinite sentences. They are serving “at Her Majesty’s pleasure,” with the intent that their sentences be defined at some later point, when they are adults. But, with the Handover looming and the sentences still undefined, they risk being caught in a legal limbo, potentially being lost in prison for the rest of their lives. Yau focuses on three main characters: a young convict who as a teen participated in a brutal gang rape and double murder; a young woman with her own history of poverty and abuse who befriends the man; and the idealistic member of the Hong Kong legislature she works for who takes up the inmates’ cause. While focusing on the process of appeal, the grind of social change (and the anger that its failure inspires: the scene inside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is as infuriating as anything in the series), Yau doesn’t shy away from questions of the young man’s guilt, but rather asks us to consider what kind of punishment he deserves. It's a rare and incisive film, the culmination of a decade of Yau’s work politicizing exploitation horror and crime films.
Like Cageman, Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes (1999) won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture. Like From the Queen to the Chief Executive, it’s a film about activism, about struggling to change a system in spite of overwhelming odds and the near-certainty of defeat. At its heart is Anthony Wong, playing an Italian priest based on real-life activist Franco Mella. He lives and works among Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei boat people, a community of fishermen who live on boats and have questionable citizenship status in British Hong Kong, despite the fact that they’ve lived there for more than a century. The film is mostly about the struggle for these men and later their wives (many of whom are from the Mainland and therefore raise even more complicated citizenship questions) to find decent public housing on the Mainland, as overcrowding and pollution has made the harbor in which they live and work uninhabitable. Giving the movie its romantic spine is the story of two kids who grow up around the movement, played by Lee Kang-sheng and Rachel Lee (sometimes billed as Loletta Lee, as she was in Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues and Patrick Tam and Wong Kar-wai’s Final Victory). There’s a weird framing story, with Rachel suffering from amnesia in the present and suddenly regaining her memories, which lead to the flashbacks that tell the story of the movement. It makes sense conceptually—post-Handover needing to remember its history of activism and protest—but dramatically it’s kind of silly. It is, however, extremely cool to see Lee Kang-sheng outside of a Tsai Ming-liang movie. He acts and talks just like a normal person!
This is the retrospective component to the rest of the series, which is made up of films about or inspired by the two major protest movements of 2014 and 2019. Of the short films in the IFFR program, I’ve only seen the collection Ten Years, which is famous for having won Best Picture at the 2015 Hong Kong Film Awards, the telecast of which was banned on the Mainland after the film was nominated. Five short films made by young directors, all set in what they imagine the year 2025 in Hong Kong could be like, they are, like most shorts programs, of varying quality. But I quite like Jevons Au’s Dialect, about a cab driver having trouble learning the now-mandatory Mandarin dialect. 
The idea for Ten Years predated the Umbrella Movement, though it was certainly inspired by many of the same forces that led to the Occupation of three districts in Hong Kong for 79 days in the fall of 2014. Of the films in the series that document that movement, I managed to see two, which approach the subject in two very different, but equally important ways. Chan Tze-woon’s Yellowing I first saw at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2016. The story basically is that Chan was a student at the time and saw what his fellow students were up to and decided to film it. He joined the Occupation and talked to the kids who were doing the protesting about why they were doing it, what drew them to it, and what they hoped to accomplish. As a ground-level, day-by-day chronicle of what it’s like to be in a mass movement spontaneously generating itself out of decades of frustration and generational idealism, the film is exceptional. Chan primarily focuses on three activists: a construction worker who just kind of wandered into the protest one day; a man named Lucky Egg (one of the shorts in Ten Years is called Local Egg) who gives lectures on English and political philosophy; and a student named Rachel (like the lead actress of Ordinary Heroes) who proves to be the film’s most eloquent spokesperson. The ground level, quotidian look at the nuts and bolts of the protest (stocking supplies, building shelters, distributing water and umbrellas, idle chitchat in the long stretches in-between dramatic action) is extremely rare, a reminder that social movements are made not by brilliant, charismatic leaders, but by regular, everyday people.
Evans Chan’s We Have Boots, premiering in its current form at Rotterdam, takes a more traditional view of the Umbrella Movement, focusing on several of its leading figures as they awaited trial for their activities (the charges amount to things like “inciting to incite to being public nuisance” and other trumped up nonsense). It appears to have been filmed in 2017 and 2018, and then re-edited with new footage as the 2019 protests broke out (it goes right up to New Years 2020, a mere three weeks ago). The result is a bit unwieldy, but never less than fascinating. Like the movement itself it lurches from activist to activist, back and forth through time (the story of 21-year-old activist-turned exiled legislator Agnes Chow is particularly compelling, as is that of activist Tommy Cheung, who gets sentenced only to community service and thus is one of the film’s few main figures who is still eligible to run for office). Factions within the Umbrella Movement are explored, particularly its uglier, nationalist, and anti-Chinese groups (Pepe the Frog makes a couple of incongruous appearances, as a symbol for Hong Kong nationalism, or simply a cartoon misappropriated by a very culture I don’t know, but it's definitely weird). A picture gradually emerges of the Umbrella Movement as a generally peaceful, idealistic moment, with the crackdown that followed it and the persecution of its leaders ultimately leading to the darker, more violent and much bigger and longer lasting 2019 actions. 
The film’s title comes from a poem by African-American writer Nikki Giovanni (“We begin a poem / with longing / and end with / responsibility / And laugh / all through the storms / that are bound / to come / We have umbrellas / We have boots / We have each / other.”). It’s one of the many links between the Occupy movement in Hong Kong and its inspirations in the United States (Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is quoted at length as well). Occupy was, after all, a global movement, one whose final effects have yet to be determined, here, there, or everywhere. In the U.S., a generation of activists have moved into electoral politics, hoping to reshape the Democratic Party and counter the increasingly crude forces with which capital defends itself from within the system. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young activist very much like the students of the Umbrella Movement, even had a similar slogan to Giovanni’s line in her run for Congress against an entrenched machine opponent: “They’ve got Money. We’ve got People.” 
There are of course important differences between the last decade in Hong Kong and in the U.S. (for one thing, Ocasio-Cortez is allowed to run for office here, unlike Agnes Chow in Hong Kong), and this wonderful series gives so much great context to it, reminding us that every place has a unique history and politics of its own, that it is dangerous to conflate them and us, to view another’s experience only through the lens of our own small corner of the world. But the commonalities are vitally important as well. Because ultimately it’s all one struggle: of the powerless against the powerful. And there are more of us than there are of them.

1. It was the top film of that year, even beating out Bruce Lee at his peak of popularity. Mandarin film had been squeezing out Cantonese for a decade, led by Shaw Brothers domination of the local market. After 72 Tenants, Cantonese films saw a resurgence, eventually all but eliminating Mandarin from the market. The outlook for the dialect is not good however, as seen in one of the better short films in the Ten Years compilation, which is also playing in the IFFR series.


International Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2020Festival CoverageChang ChehKuei Chih-hungJohnny MakJacob CheungLawrence LauHerman YauAnn HuiChan Tze-woonEvans Chan
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