“Each day is more absurd and darker than the last” a former protestor reflects, deciding to move his family abroad resolving that the only way to protect his children is to ensure they do not grow up in Hong Kong. The latest in a series of documentaries focusing on the 2019 protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling’s Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵) is among the most visceral with a potent sense of what it was like to be a young person on the ground, but is also among the least hopeful with the majority of its protagonists deciding that their only future lies in exile.
First protagonist Yan is a law student at Chinese University who is left wondering if her studies are still relevant in the wake of the National Security Law. Rather than participating directly, she helps arrange legal representation for protestors who have been arrested by the police. AJ, meanwhile, is a young man who finds his relationship with girlfriend Jennie strained by his commitment to the protests, while the mysterious Shin Long is a frontliner who finds himself conflicted in his responsibilities while his wife is pregnant with their second child.
Each of them seems to feel that time is running out and these are the last days of the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. The film opens with stock footage from the Handover with Chris Patten declaring that it is time for the Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong but of course that wasn’t really the case and the One Country Two Systems philosophy has been steadily eroded to the point of oblivion long before its 2047 expiry date. While some students feel it is a privilege that they have been able to voice their opinions at all let alone protest given that the same situation could not occur on the Mainland others are becoming frustrated not least because of the increasingly oppressive behaviour of the local police force.
In one particularly impassioned moment, students at the Chinese University confront their principal begging him to issue a statement denouncing police violence but he remains impassive refusing to acknowledge any such brutality has taken place. Several students break down in tears while one young woman recounts her sexual assault at the hands of the police. Intense footage from the middle of the protests captures policemen kneeling atop students while middle-aged and older men and women step in to challenge them, asking what these young people have done so wrong as warrant this kind of treatment. AJ talks of the “solidarity of the streets”, older people in so-called “parent cars” offering free rides to protestors while others offer meals or make simple shows of support. Shin Long, however, offers darker counter of “street justice” in which the crowd turns on a young women they believe was photographing protestors demanding she hand over her phone and delete any photos fearing she will otherwise be sending them to the police.
As the protests intensify, so does a feeling of paranoia as students are rounded up from their homes and threatened by the police. AJ is arrested and bailed but told that he’ll be sent to prison if caught at another protest, further straining his relationship with Jennie who already feels neglected by the amount of time he spends on the protest rather than with her. Like Shin Long, he feels guilty that he’s leaving a gap in the line and others may end up getting hurt because he isn’t there to protect them. But then as Shin Long points out, every time he manages to escape it’s because someone else was caught, slowing the police down and allowing him to get away. He might not always be so lucky and with a wife and soon to be two children he feels that he is being irresponsible in putting himself at so much risk.
With the passing of the Security Law, enacted so quickly its contents were kept secret until after it was voted through, all hope is drained from each of the protagonists. AJ learns he will be going to prison for a year for having done nothing more than stand in the street and chant slogans, while Shin Long also receives a lengthy sentence resolving to raise his children abroad on his release. Jennie to decides to emigrate, leaving a dejected AJ behind alone with only painful memories and little hope for the future. A raw document of the protest movement live from the ground, City on Fire has only sympathy for its wounded protagonists but equally perhaps for a disappearing Hong Kong that in the end could not be protected.
Hong Kong: City on Fire is in UK cinemas on 22nd November.
Trailer (English subtitles)