With “Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous,” director-cinematographer Christopher Doyle offers something for the time capsule, an attempt to capture the cultural moment of a city in transition. And there would seem to be no better person to produce this docu-fiction hybrid than Doyle, whose lensing for Wong Kar-wai on films like “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” had a free-flowing dynamism that helped define his adoptive city for international audiences. But the improvisational rhythms that made Doyle and Wong’s collaborations so special prove disappointingly elusive for Doyle alone, as three generations of Hong Kong voices are brought together for a squeak of a chorus. A section devoted to the “Umbrella Revolution” comes closest to seizing the day, but few beyond the pic’s Kickstarter backers will flip through Doyle’s cinematic sketchbook.
The main problem with “Hong Kong Trilogy” is that it over-promises and under-delivers. Over three distinct sections, Doyle not only surveys Hong Kong residents across generational lines — schoolchildren (“Preschooled”), twentysomething activists (“Preoccupied”) and the elderly (“Preposterous”) — but he has the conceptual brio to cast real people in roles based on their lives. This might sound like a project of mammoth ambition, but the opposite is true: Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of reducing an entire city to a representative sample, Doyle goes too far in the other direction by focusing on the undramatic and inconsequential. The bookends, especially, have a once-over-lightly quality that typifies the whole endeavor.
After a series of beautiful establishing shots establish the gentle tone that carries the picture, “Preschooled” hangs around the lush campus surrounding an elementary school. Replacing names with labels, Doyle introduces characters like Pet Shop Boy, who likes chilling with flamingoes; Vodka, a rotund kid whose relationship to his busy parents is relegated mostly to Skype; and Little Red Cap, a girl from a religious family who lives on a houseboat. These profiles in miniature are cordoned off into three sections, but the borders are not so strictly drawn that they restrict crossover, especially from adults like Beat Box, a goofy political rapper whose rhymes become more relevant as circumstances change.
The second and by far the most compelling segment, “Preoccupied” embeds itself in the tent city of the “Umbrella Revolution,” which shut down a section of Hong Kong for 79 days before the authorities finally cleared the area. Doyle meets a few new characters, like a “feng shui master” and a botanist with a farm on wheels, but he also investigates the community responsible for organizing Democracy Road so impeccably that the tents could receive postal service. “Preposterous” ends the film on a more whimsical note, following seniors on a speed-dating tour that takes them from a park to a mini-golf course to an area by the bay.
Freedom is the prevailing theme of “Hong Kong Trilogy,” even if it’s only explicit in the middle section of the film. Through the voiceover narration, Doyle tries to give ordinary citizens a chance to define the parameters of their own lives, with the implicit worry that political upheaval may change them for the worse. But the brushstrokes are so faint in the first and third sections that these portraits barely register at all: Beat Box has a romantic relationship with a teacher that’s dropped, Vodka grows attached to a fake turtle, Egg Tart Angel brings people egg tarts. Doyle isn’t curious enough about any of his subjects to evoke their lives more completely.
It’s fitting, then, that the pic succeeds when it steps back and takes a broader view of history in the making. “Preoccupied” is no more successful as a piece of individual portraiture, but the Umbrella Movement plays to organic strengths of Doyle’s filmmaking, which thrives when the action is more spontaneous. That 79 days is a mere flicker in the life of a city — one that Doyle’s camera sees cruelly snuffed out — and, if nothing else, “Hong Kong Trilogy” exists to keep the flame alive for posterity. It’s just unfortunate the rest of the film couldn’t burn as brightly.