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LIFE IMITATING ART

Six films to watch to understand what’s happening in Hong Kong

By Isabella Steger

For almost two months, Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of protests and escalating violence that began as a response to the government’s attempt to pass a much-maligned extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China to be tried.

For people here, it has felt at times as if life in Hong Kong in imitating art. Themes such as social inequality, Hong Kong-China relations, and gang violence that have long been central to the city’s movies are now erupting and coming to a head, as what began as a resistance movement over a single issue has now evolved to encompass a host of deep-rooted problems in Hong Kong.

As a white-clad mob with suspected links to organized crime assaulted passengers in a train station recently, for example, many quipped that it felt like a scene reminiscent of a Hong Kong gangster movie, while a dystopian movie’s predictions for Hong Kong’s future feels ever closer as political tensions have escalated in recent months.

Here are six films, old and new, that may help readers make sense of Hong Kong’s complex history and politics, and of this particular moment.

From Beijing With Love (1994)

This comedy tells the story of a spy sent from mainland China to Hong Kong on a mission, and is a classic of a local style of slapstick comedy known as mo lei tau. A parody of the James Bond franchise, the film stars comedy legend Stephen Chow as a butcher who is also a Chinese agent named 007. The plot pokes fun at the huge cultural differences between mainland China and Hong Kong at the time, as the vastly richer citizens of the then British colony often looked down at their neighbors across the border. The film also critiques China through exploring themes such as autocratic rule and corruption, worries that weighed squarely on people’s minds following the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.

Such critiques are rarely seen in Hong Kong’s movie industry today due to the clout of the Chinese market, with many local filmmakers and actors turning their gaze northward in the last two decades—while the growing wealth of mainland Chinese renders many of the gags in the film now anachronistic. “That was the golden era for Hong Kong film, when people in the film industry didn’t need to rely on the mainland market,” Hong Kong publication HK01 wrote (link in Chinese) of From Beijing With Love in 2017. Indeed, Chow now largely focuses on making films for mainland audiences, and has even gained political influence in China.

Made in Hong Kong (1997)

Released months after the city returned to Chinese rule, Made in Hong Kong, directed by Fruit Chan, explores the feelings of disillusionment and pessimism that enshrouded the city as it entered a new era. The low-budget and edgy indie film focuses on the lives of a group of young Hong Kongers, including a small-time gangster and high-school dropout who is estranged from his family, and his friendships with a terminally ill girl and mentally disabled sidekick. The trio’s lives are altered as they encounter the suicide of a student. The story takes place in one of the city’s public housing complexes, where a majority of the population still live today, cheek-by-jowl in micro apartments—amplifying the feelings of suffocation and despondence.

Made in Hong Kong was re-released on its 20th anniversary in high def, and continues to be a stark reminder that two decades after the handover back to China, those same feelings of doom and gloom have not only not dissipated, but have grown stronger. “This nihilistic coming-of-age story and political allegory… asks the same questions about Hong Kong’s future as young people in Hong Kong today, and the consequences are just as devastating,” said Jenny Suen, a Hong Kong director.

Election (2005)

Following the attacks by a mob of white-clad thugs in a train station in a northern suburb of Hong Kong on July 21, the city is abuzz once again with chatter about the clout of criminal gangs in the city. Many are also asking how it was possible that police did not arrive in time to prevent these men from freely beating up people even inside a train carriage, with most of the thugs gone by the time police got there.

Hong Kong’s police chief has vehemently denied any suggestion that there was any cooperation between the force and crime gangs, but it’s unlikely to put to rest long-standing theories that such collusion has long existed in the city. Of the vast canon of Hong Kong gangster movies, few explore the relationship more lucidly than Election, directed by Johnny To, which a Hong Kong government press release said explored the “precarious power balance between the triads and the police.”

The film—which in Cantonese translates as “black society,” the commonly used local term for triads—centers around one such gang as it prepares to elect its new chief, and how police would handle the inevitable fallout from the ensuing power struggle. In a real-life example, a 2013 leadership struggle in one Hong Kong triad was accompanied by a string of violent incidents, with police responding by raiding businesses tied to the group.

Ten Years (2015)

Audiences who watched the dystopian film—which imagines a number of different scenarios what Hong Kong 10 years from now looks like—were driven to tears because of the frightening similarities between the movie and real life, with Beijing tightening its grip over all aspects of life in the city in recent years and many citizens feeling particularly lost with the denouement of the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. The collection of vignettes in Ten Years includes one that imagines mandatory Mandarin language for Hong Kong residents, and a particularly poignant storyline where a Hong Kong resident self-immolates in protest.

The little-advertised film was a surprise hit, but just two months after its release, the film was no longer screening anywhere in Hong Kong, leaving many wondering whether theaters too were engaging in self-censorship. Still, in its eight-weekend run in fewer than 10 theaters, it made nearly HK$6 million ($770,000), more than 10 times what it cost to make. It even went on to win best movie at the Hong Kong Film Awards and inspire a global franchise. The Hong Kong government, however, hasn’t acknowledged the success of the indie hit—when the movie was shown at a film festival in New York in 2016, the city government neglected to mention the title in a press release.

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017)

This documentary chronicles the life of Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence in 2012 when the then 14-year-old and other teenagers formed a group called Scholarism that pushed back against a government attempt to introduce patriotic education in schools, which critics decried as brainwashing. He also played a key role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, after which Scholarism was disbanded and replaced by political party Demosisto. Wong continues to be at the forefront of Hong Kong’s resistance movement, and stepped back into the thick of the current protests against an extradition law after he was released early from prison in June from a two-month sentence.

Netflix won the rights for the hour-long documentary after the film, directed by Joe Piscatella, premiered at the Sundance film festival. Teenager vs. Superpower follows a 2014 documentary, Lessons in Dissent, that followed Wong and another teenage activist during their protests against patriotic education.

The Crossing (2018)

To fully observe all the peculiarities and contradictions embedded in “one country, two systems”—the model by which Hong Kong is governed—look no further than the 25-mile-long border that separates the former British colony from Shenzhen, the booming tech hub of southern China. A recent film by Shenzhen-based director Bai Xue explores the border and the lives on either side of it through the lens of 16-year-old Peipei, one of the thousands of cross-border students who travel daily from the mainland to Hong Kong to attend school. Like many mainland Chinese, she has aspirations of making a living in Hong Kong, only to have her dreams dashed by the meager wages offered in one of the world’s most unequal economies, driving her to work for a gang of smugglers carrying iPhones over the border to make extra cash.

“Other mainland films featuring Hong Kong tend to show it either as an enviable beacon of high-class living, or as a faded metropolis in the shadow of Shanghai or Beijing. The Crossing resists such a comparison,” said Cameron White, a doctoral student specializing in Hong Kong cinema at the University of Michigan. “Instead, it portrays the economic realities of a crowded, unequal city, where the rules feel so stacked against the protagonist that she must find a way around them. The frustration is palpable—just as it is on the streets today.”