Hong Kong Mixtape

Hong Kong Mixtape Review: Ode to a Changing Nation

Hot Docs 2023

6 mins read

Hong Kong Mixtape
(UK, 87 min.)
Dir. San San F Young
Programme: International Spectrum (International premiere)


At one point in Hong Kong Mixtape, the idea of the city being known solely as a financial hub filled with corporate skyscrapers and suits is posited as almost a facade. The true Hong Kong, director San San F Young puts forward, has always been a place filled with art, culture, and creation. So, when China attempted to disembody the soul of Hong Kong, its people were quick to remind the authoritarian regime of their natural state, hoping to prove their identity through artistic expression.

The film is styled as a personal essay with Young recounting her upbringing in Hong Kong, her mixed- race heritage, and the counterculture she discovered at a young age and was determined to join. Young’s arms-length approach to Hong Kong in her adult years provides an interesting texture to the film: she’s an insider looking on from the outside. Hong Kong formed Young into who she is and no matter how much time and space separates her from the territory, the energy and vivacity of her homeland will never leave her. But she is acutely aware that her absence has caused her to miss out on Hong Kong’s ever-changing landscape that will shape future generations.

Hong Kong’s current political climate has been examined and dissected in the news, online, and in many documentaries including Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?, also screening at Hot Docs. What makes Young’s film unique is its focus on the artistry of the Hong Kong people.

Like many uprisings before, a number of protest songs have been created and belted out, much to the chagrin of Beijing, during this period of unrest. The walls and tunnels of Hong Kong became empty canvases for people to exercise their freedom of speech when their voices were silenced. Filmmakers and dancers took to the streets and mountains of the city to produce remarkable visuals and stories in the hopes of inspiring and motivating activists new and old. It is clear that creativity was alive and well in a time when a concerted effort was made to sanitize and dampen independent thought.

For much of the film, Young waxes lyrical about the art found in Hong Kong’s unrest, which is a unique approach to the situation. But inevitably Hong Kong Mixtape takes the same sombre path all documentaries about the city must follow. The introduction of the Hong Kong national security law in 2020 was the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back and drew a bleak cast over the island. With the streets emptied of protesters, city workers worked swiftly to paint and pave over any evidence that dissent once existed.

Young begins asking those around her, including her mother, whether they plan on staying or leaving. It’s the part of Hong Kong’s story I find most heartbreaking. There’s something special about Hong Kong, an indescribable quality that lays within every resident past and present. To leave Hong Kong in the current circumstances feels like giving up on a place that gave its people so much. This is especially poignant for the many who escaped to Hong Kong from China, fleeing persecution and the Cultural Revolution for a brighter future.

All of Young’s interviewees echo a similar sentiment: they don’t want to leave Hong Kong but feel that there are no other choices to be had. This is true for Young’s mother and one of Hong Kong Mixtape’s main subjects, Kacey Wong. A renowned visual artist, Wong would eventually emigrate to Taiwan in 2021, seeing no future in Hong Kong as militant law and order destroyed the freedoms that used to be around him.

A reading of Young’s film says that Wong’s quiet exit from Hong Kong represents the exasperated departure of its culture and a warning that the city’s soul is undergoing re-construction. But with one project at the end of the film involving Hong Kongers from around the world coming together to create one last piece of art, Young attempts to give optimism and light to her story. From Sydney to Prague to Toronto, Young illustrates that the strength of a nation isn’t in its geography or politics. The heart and soul of Hong Kong was, and always has been, with its people–those who left and those who stayed.

Hong Kong Mixtape screens at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

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