Commemorating Hong Kong’s lost youth

Husna Ara finds Blue Island a confused documentary, bogged down by form and lacking in political nuance.

Blue Island takes commendable risks in form. The documentary follows a group of people arrested by the Hong Kong state during the anti-extradition law protests of 2019. The young arrestees (born as recently as 1997!) interview older citizens who fled mainland China during the cultural revolution under Mao, and even re-enact their grandparents’ ‘re-education’ as agricultural labourers with the use of time warps.

But, for all its variety of presentation, Blue Island’s execution feels lukewarm. The intergenerational conversations feel stilted and repetitive – lacking any real meat. Former activists, now middle-aged business men, lament their disillusionment with student leaders – while impassioned, younger men obsequiously insist this is a fight worth continuing with. Kenneth Lam for instance, is a solicitor who represents and advises the city’s debt-ridden working people. He nods to his former days of occupying public spaces by assisting those picked up by Hong Kong police for charges such as rioting, inciting public nuisance and unlawful assembly. He cringes at his professionalization, but what of his and indeed others’ story of continued politicization?

These details – origin stories of great importance – are given lip service in the documentary. Viewers are left wanting more of a three-dimensional sense of the subjects’ politics (beyond protecting the right to dissent and the city’s political autonomy). For instance, we know particular factions of the student movement have been at the forefront of municipal and housing activism, agitating against mammoth property developers buying up land and inflating rents for the city’s working class. More colour and anecdotes would have done much to dispel the prevalent and binary notions that pro-Hong Kong protesters were purely free marketeers, and pro-Beijing supporters committed communists.

For viewers outside of the China-Hong Kong nexus – particularly progressive spectators of the ongoing calls for democracy in the region – the film offers less insight and more confusion when it comes to this binary. Indeed, on more than one occasion the interviewer prompts a now-jailed protester to read an earlier manifesto from the 1989 Tienanmen Square student protests and observes his reaction. While the parallel stories in dissent are obvious, this peculiar exercise leaves the subject’s present under-explored. At times the face-to-camera interviews feel like a masterclass in leading questions, and a missed opportunity to flesh out the young leaders’ reflections, in their own words.

More colour and anecdotes would have done much to dispel the prevalent and binary notions that pro-Hong Kong protesters were purely free marketeers, and pro-Beijing supporters committed communists

For me, intimate documentation of those at the forefront of this systemic rupture must capture and elucidate the details of their lives – their origins, their doubts, their fears and loved ones, who time and again plead them to reconsider their political sacrifice. The narrative and explanatory gaps in this work make it difficult to digest if you, like me, are from outside the region.

But the real let down in Blue Island lies in its exceptionalism. Hong Kong – beautiful as it is – is no exception to China’s clampdown on plural voices, nor its wider plans to politically consolidate its territories. For some of the persecuted activists, Hong Kong isn’t China. Its values, its people – made up of an island of dissenters who largely fled the cultural revolution – are portrayed as clinging to freedom and self-governance in a way that is self-evidently not Chinese.

Understandably, anyone with a sense of loyalty, affinity and warm feeling toward the city they’ve grown up in will buy in to its unique charms. But Blue Island misses the mark here in its framing. Instead of showing that the young protesters are not the only ones unhappy with the state violence brought upon them, and articulating their visions for self authorship, director Chan Tze-woon offers us a parochial picture of the now eroding Umbrella Movement.

A confused documentary that gets bogged down by form over more fundamental questions of narrative consistency, Blue Island falls flat in its international messaging, exacerbating the confusions of the Left that already surround commentary about Hong Kong. For sympathetic viewers thirsty for deeper context, drawing out the detailed lives and shared vision of this movement, and their relationships with one another, could have gone much further.