When it comes to the Chinese Communist Party cracking down on dissent, you can always count on history repeating itself, over and over again. Older Hongkongers learned that lesson by watching the mainland from afar, whereas the younger generation learned it firsthand during the 2019 Extradition Law protests.
The Umbrella generation of activists come together with their elder dissenters for dialogue and to re-create defining incidents from the latter’s lives in Chan Tze-woon’s hybrid documentary “Blue Island.”
The film first introduces us to Chan Hak-chi, who is like a Hong Kong Jack Lalanne. The septuagenarian has the physique of a man one quarter of his age, partly due to his daily habit of swimming in Victoria Harbor. In addition to exercise, the practice has personal meaning, since he twice tried to flee the Cultural Revolution by swimming.
More than 200,000 Mainlanders escaped the Gang of Four’s madness, mostly via water. Regrettably, 20-something activists Anson Sham and the Mainland-born Siu Ying are starting to understand the motivation behind their desperate flight, which helps them relate to the eternally-fit Chan and his wife (almost like method actors) when recreating scenes from their escape.”
Fleeing Mainland’s Madness
More than 200,000 mainlanders escaped the Gang of Four’s madness, mostly via water. Regrettably, 20-something activists Anson Sham and the mainland-born Siu Ying are starting to understand the motivation behind their desperate flight, which helps them relate (almost like method actors) to Chan and his wife when re-creating scenes from their escape.
Ironically, Kenneth Lam made the opposite journey to mainland China and back again. Inspired by the student protesters, he traveled to Beijing in 1989 to join them. Although he survived the Tiananmen Square massacre, the experience left him deeply scarred and disillusioned. Keith Fong Chung-yin understands, since he is facing potential jail time for a bogus weapons charge.
He is not the only one. So many of the activists, young and old, featured in “Blue Island” are currently facing pending indictments, serving sentences, or living in exile.
Yet, of all director Chan’s participants, Raymond Young is perhaps the most conflicted. He is also the exception among the older activists, whose experiences still bear out the truth of Hong Kong’s subservient position, with respects to the CCP. During his idealistic youth, Young was imprisoned by the British for his anti-colonialist, communist-allied activism.
He still honors his old comrades, but he is bitterly aware that they have received no recognition from the CCP or those who do its bidding in Hong Kong.
However, Young can offer counsel and consolation to Kelvin Tam Kwan-long, a 21-year-old social worker facing a prison sentence of his own. Fittingly, the film also visits with “Long Hair” Leung Kwak-hung, whose distinctive look always livens up HK documentaries. A former Marxist who transitioned to the democracy movement, Leung was elected to the Legislative Council as a reformer, but he was subsequently convicted of multiple dubious charges, along with many of his colleagues.
“Blue Island” is a radical departure from Chan’s “Yellowing,” which documented the 2014 Umbrella protests, as they happened, from the streets and amid the tear gas. However, the dramatized sequences in his latest film help both generations of activists express the truth of Hong Kong and China, as they know it.
Still, both documentaries very definitely personalize the young Hong Kong protesters, giving them names and faces. Hopefully, that will help protect them. On the other hand, it is understandable why 2,645 of the film’s crowd-funders donated anonymously.
Those dramatic interludes are better described as evocative or impressionistic than melodramatic. They are more about creating a mood, usually of fear, than developing character or narrative. Chan and company definitely convey a sense of life in Hong Kong today and the People’s Republic, during the Cultural Revolution and the ill-fated “Beijing Spring.” He and cinematographer Szeto Yat-lui create many images that would be absolutely beautiful if they weren’t so sad.
Given the recurring motif of water, “Blue Island” pairs up well, both thematically and aesthetically, with Olivia Martin-McGuire’s partly animated short documentary, “Freedom Swimmer.”
Both films vividly illustrate the point that Hong Kong was once literally and figuratively a safe harbor but can no longer be considered so, after Beijing imposed the Orwellian “National Security Law.” Consequently, each film serves as a meditative elegy to the freedoms and way of life that Hongkongers have lost as a result.
Many of the young activists openly question whether they must eventually follow Chan Hak-choi’s example and flee Hong Kong if they wish to continue to identify as Hongkongers, or risk following Young’s footsteps into prison. It is a remarkably empathic film and an unusually artistically composed documentary.
Very highly recommended, “Blue Island” had its U.S. premiere during this year’s New Directors/New Films and next screens as part of CAAMfest in San Francisco.
Director: Chan Tze-woon
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: April 30, 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5