Following the crackdown on the protest movement, many Hong Kongers began to think about seeking freer futures abroad, but what was it that those who decided to leave found there? Crystal Wong’s documentary the Grass is Greener on the Other Side (野草不盡) follows a collection of Hong Kongers who moved to the UK and explores the emotional complexity of life in exile as they attempt to hang on to their cultural identity in a society largely ignorant of their struggle.
Wong mainly follows two protagonists, one a graphic designer about to become a father and the other a young student still fearing repercussions from his role in the protests whose friend is currently awaiting trial in Hong Kong. Both are clear that they reject a “Chinese” identity and defiantly describe themselves as Hong Kongers. Yet in the UK they are repeatedly asked to fill in forms asking for their ethnicity which generally offer only the choice of “Chinese” or a nebulous “other”, each time they write in Hong Kong as an alternative answer. One of the reasons the expectant father chose to leave is that he didn’t want his child growing up speaking Mandarin (both men are also ironically greeted with “ni hao” before explaining that they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong) but others ask him if he won’t end up losing his language to English instead, a removals man bringing up the case of his Australian niece who now refuses to answer her grandparents in Cantonese even when she understands what they’re saying. He and his wife insist they won’t let that happen, but even in job interviews they seem more interested in his ability to speak Mandarin than his design skills.
Before he left, he attended a housewarming party for another friend who decided to stay and was able to buy a home thanks to a motivated seller emigrating in a hurry. Everyone seems to be leaving, even a shop attendant guesses that the student she’s serving is probably leaving soon when he mentions that he’s not sure if his card’s topped up enough. Yet another of the older men had said that it’s mainly those of their age who are planning to go abroad, the student protestors are deciding to stay and fight some of them resentful that the previous generation is dropping the ball by abandoning ship. The student, however, has taken the opportunity to study abroad to protect himself from repercussions from participating in the protests in Hong Kong heading to the UK while his friend prepares to leave for Germany vowing only to return should a war break out.
Yet the designer asks himself if he’s really satisfied while a friend of his who’s been in the UK for a while cautions that he may get bored moving to a town like his which he says is better suited to retirees. He struggles to secure employment and considers moving out of London to save money but describes leaving Hong Kong as akin to an acrimonious divorce. He’s offended when someone asks him what he misses because what he misses is a disappeared Hong Kong to which he can never return. Some of his friends had described Hong Kong as like Goose Town in the 2010 Mainland comedy Let the Bullets Fly, a place completely oppressed by a corrupt authority. “You need to whole heartedly hate a place to decide to leave it permanently” he explains.
Both he and the student attend the central London protests attempting to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s plight while carrying on the fight even in exile. One encounters a man who asks him what the protest is about and if he really “hates” China while stating that it reminds him of the situation in Sri Lanka and expressing solidarity with his struggle. The student meanwhile makes his way towards Trafalgar Square where the protest merges with another one hosted by Nigerians protesting political oppression in Nigeria. He regrets that he won’t be able to return to Hong Kong in time for his friend’s trial (especially considering the quarantine procedures during the pandemic) while trying to get on with his studies. Each of them struggle with their decision, wondering if they’ve done the right thing and if they will ever return to a free Hong Kong while trying to hang on to their cultural identity as they forge new lives in an unfamiliar society.
The Grass is Greener on the Other Side screens in London 31st March as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)