(Hong Kong/Japan, Taiwan, 98 min.)
Dir. Chan Tze Woon
Programme: International Spectrum
“What is Hong Kong to you?” director Chan Tze Woon asks his subjects.
To the British Empire, it was a territory to be conquered. To mainland China, it’s a territory they’ve re-conquered. To the world, it’s the financial hub bridging the East to the West. To thousands of Chinese people who fled the Cultural Revolution it was a beacon of freedom. And to the 7.5 million residents, and for countless others who migrated elsewhere, it’s home.
Hong Kong has never had its own homegrown identity. Its culture is an amalgamation of others: traditional Chinese values, British colonial persuasions, and expat influences. The city/special administrative region/former colony has gone through many phases and faces, and it’s currently facing another period of change.
Blue Island is more than a documentary about the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Movement in Hong Kong. It’s a film that explores what it means (and has meant) to be a Hongkonger over the last 150 years.
Director Chan takes a unique approach to telling the story of his homeland. He reenacts key moments in Hong Kong’s history by using current student activists as his actors. Each reenactment is based on a true story, and Chan invites the owners of the stories to take part as well.
The first story we explore is from Chan Hak-chi, a young man, who along with his girlfriend, is planning to escape from the autocratic regime in China. The duo discuss with two student activists their life in China: being forced to work as farmers despite obtaining higher schooling and their willingness to do so lest their parents be sent to “re-education” camps. For the Chan’s (long since married), Hong Kong represented hope and a better future.
Now, nearly 50 years since the Chan’s, and many others, swam into Hong Kong’s harbours, thousands more are confronted with the near-impossible decision of whether to stay or leave in the face of diminished freedoms and an uncertain future. Throughout the film, director Chan draws parallels like these from the past to the present, including a particularly moving conversation on that subject between Raymond Young and Kelvin Tam Kwan Long.
In 1967, Young was a Hong Kong middle-schooler deeply patriotic to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He was imprisoned for his participation in the 1967 riots against British Hong Kong rule and released only when he turned 17-years-old. Tam is currently awaiting trial for his participation in the 2019 protest.
The two discuss the value of their protests and subsequent criminal charges. Young implores Tam to see his situation with a long lens, but Tam, imbued with youth, reminds Young of why he is fighting and whether it is worth it. While Young no longer holds the same allegiance he once did to the CCP or PRC, he is sitting on the sidelines of Hong Kong’s current civil unrest. “We, the people of Hong Kong, across our 150-year history, have we ever been able to control our own fate?” Young asks Tam. “No, we have always been at the whim of fate.”
In 2020, Anders Hammer released the Academy Award nominated documentary short Do Not Split, about the current protests. Where Do Not Split showed visceral, frenetic clips of what the protests were like on the ground, Blue Island shows the heartache and frustration of generations of Hongkongers culminating in 2019’s protests.
Director Chan makes poignant comparisons to Hong Kong’s past, emphasizing the ironic similarities to the present by instigating conversations across generations. He ends the film with a montage of local residents, who have been charged for crimes in connection with the protests. Insurance agents, district councillors, countless secondary and university students, delivery workers, actors, people working in the legislature, and more–clearly showing that the issues spurring the protests have been felt across the city’s demographics and socio-economic statuses.
The Chinese title of the film,「憂鬱之島」, translates into “Island of Depression,” a perfectly concise way to describe the feeling of despair and helplessness of many Hong Kong people around the world. And although Blue Island spends the majority of its time focusing on dark events, director Chan shines a light of optimism when it can be found, focusing on the belief that Hong Kong will live on no matter what challenges lie ahead. As student representative Keith Fong Chung Yin elegantly expresses: “Hong Kong isn’t the place, it’s the people.”
Blue Island had its world premiere at the 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival.