The question of what it means to be a Hong Konger is examined in Chan Tze-woo’s innovative and affecting hybrid documentary “Blue Island.” Artfully editing footage of the 2019-2020 protests with dramatic recreations of events that have shaped the British colony turned Chinese special administrative region since 1967, “Blue Island” balances its unavoidably sobering picture of the current political landscape with uplifting testimony of individuals determined to preserve the spirit of Hong Kong, no matter what the future holds. Winner of the international documentary award at Hot Docs this year, “Blue Island” will likely never be legally exhibited in Hong Kong or China, though specialty outfit Icarus Films is distributing the film theatrically in selected U.S. cities.
After capturing the street-level intensity and passion of student activists involved in the Umbrella Movement in his 2016 documentary “Yellowing,” Chan has taken a much more expansive and creative approach in this companion piece about sustained civil disobedience in his homeland during 2019 and 2020. While there is no shortage of frontline footage of arrests and protestors clashing with police, most of the running time is dedicated to placing recent events in historical and deeply personal contexts.
Chan’s inventive and engaging method involves casting student activists, many of whom are awaiting trial, in dramatic recreations of pivotal moments in Hong Kong’s history. Adding an extra dimension to these re-enactments is the participation of real-life individuals involved in stories from the past. In the film’s terrific opening section we meet Chan Hak-chi, an elderly man who swam from China to Hong Kong with wife Git Hing in 1973 to escape the Cultural Revolution. Playing Chan and Git in flashbacks are young protestors Anson Sham Kwan-yin and Tin Siu-ying. Past and present come together in scenes such as a rural community education session in 1973, where party officials are furiously extolling the virtues of “great leader” Mao Zedong.
Midway through, this scene re-enactment stops and documentary begins when Chan appears in the crowd and begins talking to Sham about this very experience. Asked by Sham if people really responded with such enthusiasm when asked to show patriotism and loyalty, Chan describes the 1973 reaction as being “not as fervent” as depicted here.
Kenneth Lam, who fled to Hong Kong after taking part in pro-democracy protests that triggered the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, is played by Keith Fong Chung-yin, a student leader in 2019. Excellent reconstructions of events from that terrible day are nimbly woven into footage of Lam attending the (now banned, ostensibly on Covid-19 grounds) annual Tiananmen remembrance vigil, and director Chan asking Fong to project his 2019 experiences into his dramatic portrayal of Lam in 1989.
The young activist’s feelings about the past and the bravery of Lam and his comrades advances the film’s thesis of what Hong Kong means to its citizens. Having undergone many changes since it was ceded to the British in 1842, it has never been easy to define Hong Kong’s national identity. But everyone here can agree that a range of personal, political and economic freedoms have always been central to the character and personality of Hong Kong, even during British rule — but much less so now.
Chan’s hybrid technique is at its best when telling the story of Raymond Young. In 1967 Young was a Hong Kong teenager with deeply patriotic ties to the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. After participating in anti-British riots in 1967, Young served time in jail. Playing Young is Kelvin Tam Kwan-long, an activist born after the 1997 handover, whose childhood education included textbooks instructing him to identify as Chinese.
The most illuminating and moving discussion takes place between these men in a prison cell. Young, who has chosen not to take part in the current protests, tells Tam to look at the big picture and think forward to the time when “no one seems to care” and some of his fellow protestors have moved into positions of power. “Time will slowly erode your ideals,” he says, adding that Hong Kong has never been able to control its destiny. Such sobering, brutally honest words from the older man to the young idealist play a crucial role in “Blue Island” avoiding the trap of unwarranted optimism about the future of Hong Kong for those who consider the 50-year “one country, two systems” policy already defunct.
As re-enactments and discussions between older and younger generations come to a close, Chan fills the screen with portraits of Hong Kongers from all walks of life — musicians, nurses, clerks, legislators, community organizers — who are awaiting trial for offenses such as “conspiring to subvert state power.” The long procession of faces and charges serves as a reminder that with legislation such as the national security law of 2020, and film censorship changes made in October 2021, it will be even more difficult, if not impossible, to make films such as this and other recent productions including “When a City Rises” and “Revolution of Our Times.” The sense of apprehension and mounting fear is emphasised in the end credits of “Blue Island,” which must surely hold the record for the highest number of cast and crew members listed as “Anonymous.”