Flowing Stories (河上變村, Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, 2014)

Shooting in her own home village, documentarian Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan spins a meandering tale of diaspora and dislocation in her 2014 documentary Flowing Stories (河上變村). Beginning in the small village of Ho Chung in which almost all of the residents have gone abroad to find work, the film charts the paths of migration along with the hardships discovered both at home and away while centring the village festival held every 10 years as a point of reunion as sons and daughters return in celebration of an idealised village life the modern world has denied them. 

Tsang begins her tale with Granny Lau, an elderly lady who lived next-door to her when she was a child whose relatives often brought her souvenirs from Europe. As Granny Lau explains, her life was always hard. She married Grandpa Lau at 19 in an arranged marriage but he left to find work abroad soon after, returning only a handful of times in 20 years during which they had several children Granny Lau had to raise alone. She describes her familial relationships as without affection, her husband a virtual stranger to her while she also had to work in the fields leaving her disconnected from her sons and daughters. Later, many of them traveled to Calais to work in the restaurant Grandpa Lau had set up with the intention of reuniting his family in France. 

The children who went also talk of hardship, being unable to speak the language and mixing only with other migrants from Hong Kong many from the same the village. Fourth daughter Mei Yong remarks that only the thought of the village festival kept her going when she came to Calais at 17 leaving all her friends behind and having nothing much to do other than work in the restaurant. Her sister-in-law says something similar, that when she arrived she was immediately put to washing dishes and only reprieved when the children were born but that wasn’t much better because the only source of entertainment available to them was to have dinner together. The second of the sisters Mei Lan moved to London with her husband and still doesn’t know the language, having regular mahjong parties with with her neighbours who are also from Hong Kong and many of them nearby villages. 

Most of the others say they don’t think they’ll ever move back, as Grandpa Lau eventually did, because they’ve spent more than half their lives abroad and have had sons and daughters who have grown up and made lives in other countries. But for Mei Lan it’s different because she has no children. She and her husband regret the decision to go abroad, suggesting they did so because their parents encouraged it thinking it would be easier for them to find work but really there were opportunities to be had in Hong Kong and they might have been happier living in a place where they spoke the language. 

But life is hard in every place, and equally for those who leave and those who are left behind. Some reflect on the changing nature of Ho Chung with its new settlement across the river dominated by detached houses which has, a daughter who moved to Edinburgh suggests, disrupted the sense of community. Where people once rarely closed their doors and neighbours wandered through each others homes helping each other out where needed, now everyone is scattered in disparate settlements. Then again, Granny Lau seems to think that sense of community is largely a myth explaining that in her day you had to do everything yourself, no one was going to feed your cow or plough your field if you couldn’t do yourself.

In her own way strangely cheerful in her stoicism, Granny Lau is a tough woman who asks why she would cry for a husband who was over 80 years old when he died, insisting that she had “nothing to be nostalgic about” and counting herself lucky as long as she has two meals a day. Now only around 900 people remain in the village, while it is said that the Shaolin Temple may be looking to build a new complex in the area as the natural vistas are disrupted once again by diggers further eroding the traditional qualities the village festival celebrates. The stories of migration flow in and out of Ho Chung taking pieces of the of the village with them as they go but equally leaving behind a melancholy sense of loss for a disappearing way of life.

Flowing Stories screened as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Taste of Wild Tomato (野番茄, Lau Kek Huat, 2021)

Towards the conclusion of Lau Kek Huat’s documentary Taste of Wild Tomatoes (野番茄, yě fānqié), a man whose father was murdered during the White Terror gets into a heated debate with a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek who asks him if he thinks things would have been better if the Japanese had stayed. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that Taiwan might have been just fine on its own, a free and independent nation no longer subject to any particular coloniser. Her attitude reflects the contradictions of the contemporary society still trying to understand and make peace with its past. The now middle-aged man thinks that Chiang Kai-shek’s presence in “Liberty Square” is inappropriate, “worshipped by tourists who do not know our history”, and that the lingering national trauma of the 228 Incident, in which a popular uprising against the rule of the KMT government in 1947 was brutally put down, has never fully been addressed. 

Another of Lau’s protagonists also lost her father to the White Terror and her mother to suicide shortly after. It’s her recollections that give the film its bittersweet title as she remembers being taken to her father’s grave as a small child but not knowing what was going on. She didn’t understand why her mother was crying and simply carried on eating some wild tomatoes that were growing near the grave. Their taste has stayed with her all these years as an ironic reminder of the fruits of oppression and the frustrated vitality of the Taiwanese society enduring even during its hardship. 

The film opens with a sequence featuring animation and stock footage from the colonial era over which a man gives a speech likening himself to the Japanese folk hero Momotaro and Taiwan to the island of barbarians to which he traveled. Kaohsiung had been an important military base under Japanese colonial rule, integral to imperial expansion to the South. The voice over describes it as an uncivilised land where they do not speak his language, but then emphasises that Taiwan has been transformed by Japanese intervention and is now the pearl of the empire. “As long as you work hard, you can be the true subjects of the Empire of Japan’” he ominously adds. 

Under the Japanese, the Taiwanese people were asked to give up their names and language, but they were also asked to do so under the KMT under whose rule Taiwanese Hokkien was actively suppressed in favour of Mainland Mandarin. A folk singer explains that traditional folk singing is tailored to the rhythms of the local language, Mandarin simply does not scan and if she cannot sing in Taiwanese then she cannot sing at all. She offers a caustic retelling of history in her songs reflecting on the 228 incident and the “unreasonable and cruel” rule of the KMT governor Chen Yi. Another man who took part in the uprising explains that the widow and son of a man who died next to him only came to ask how he died decades later because it was not only taboo but dangerous to make any mention of what happened on that day. 

Lau’s camera makes an eerie journey into a tunnel built by the Japanese military that was used as an interrogation room during the White Terror. A guide explains that the soundproofing wasn’t present in the colonial era but was added by the KMT so that people couldn’t hear what was going on inside. The woman who had tried to defend Chiang Kai-shek, irritated by the man continuing to speak in Taiwanese and answering him in Mandarin, had not tried to deny that such things had happened only that sometimes it is necessary to do “bad things” to survive much as an elderly conscript had recounted murdering an abusive Japanese officer and eating his flesh while hiding in the Philippine jungle during the war. “Justice always defeats authoritarian regimes” Chiang is heard to say in an incredibly ironic speech in which he also talks of the importance of rehabilitating “those who learned the wrong ideas in the fascist regimes” and making them accept Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy, and the peoples’s welfare). 

The woman who lost her parents now cares for her older sister who suffers with dementia, she thinks brought on by the hardship she endured because of her orphanhood. Closing with scenes of an air raid shelter repurposed as a children’s park, the film presents an ambivalent message as to how the past has been incorporated into contemporary life. Something good has been made of these relics of the traumatic memories, but in doing so it might also seem that the past itself has been forgotten or overwritten. The man who lost his father and himself went into exile defiantly holds up banners stating that Taiwan is not “Chinese Taipei” while insisting that the statue of Chiang Kai-shek must be removed from Liberty Square if it is to have any meaning, all while the folk singer continues to sing her song in her own language refusing to be silenced even if society does not always want to hear about its painful past.

Taste of Wild Tomato screened as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Ping Pong (乒乓, Leong Po-Chih, 1986)

A young woman wrestles with her cultural identity when tasked with executing a will she can’t even read in Leong Po-Chih’s 1986 diaspora drama, Ping Pong (乒乓). The dead man’s family members can agree on only one thing, that they hate the will and won’t sign it, but are also constantly reminding themselves that “the third principle” of being Chinese, according to uncle Siu Loong (Victor Kan), is to obey the elders’ wishes and never question them. 

Sam Wong (K. C. Leong) is found dead in a telephone box still clasping the receiver not far from his incredibly successful Chinatown restaurant. Elaine Choi (Lucy Sheen) is a young British-Chinese lawyer who arrived in the UK from Macao around the age of seven following the deaths of her parents. Her first problem is that she no longer remembers any Chinese and is unable to read the will she’s been charged with executing, eventually getting a family member to help her decode it while realising that it’s going to set the cat amongst the pigeons. Her sense of cultural dislocation is only deepened when she attends Sam’s Taoist funeral and admits to the British wife of Sam’s son Alan (Ric Young) that she has no idea what’s going on either. Sam’s wife Ying (Lam Fung), who came to the UK at 17 for an arranged marriage, hurriedly shoos her daughter-in-law out while berating her son for not knowing how inappropriate it is for a pregnant woman to attend a funeral. Elaine is also told that her presence is inappropriate and invited instead to a dinner at Sam’s restaurant the following day to read out the will. 

Of course, it’s not unusual to encounter discord among family members when it comes to settling an estate, but Sam seems to have either entirely misunderstood his relatives or else deliberately set out to teach them a lesson, one that will help them recover the Chinese identity they may each be in danger of losing. Alan has become a professor and married an upper middle-class British woman (Victoria Wicks). Their home is the epitome of a certain kind of stereotypical Englishness while Alan appears to show little interest in his cultural legacy. The absent Michael (David Yip) who doesn’t even attend the funeral or will reading runs a flashy fusion-style “Chinese” restaurant which is entirely staffed by Italians and holds regular cream pie parties. Michael is an embodiment of the spirit of the age. Educated in expensive boarding schools, he’s become an obnoxious English gentlemen in cricket jumpers and sharp suits who plans to build a seven-storey leisure complex on Gerrard Street with money from a Hong Kong millionaire looking to escape Handover anxiety. For Michael, his Chinese heritage is just something to be sold and repackaged to people to who don’t know any better. The design for the leisure centre is like some orientalist fever dream, a fairytale pagoda channeling Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and Cinderella’s Castle. 

Sam left him the restaurant on the condition he run it “the Chinese way”, which obviously isn’t something Michael was particularly keen on doing. Michael’s older half-sister, Cherry (Barbara Yu Ling), a child of Sam’s first marriage in China, is also resentful that her father left the warehouse she’d been managing to her step-mother Ying along with the family home, while leaving a farm they owned growing Chinese vegetables to family friend, Mr Chen (Robert Lee), rather than to one of the descendants. Her husband Siu Loong, a former Hong Kong cop, tries to teach their children “Chineseness” through rote learning and casual violence including the instruction that children should obey without question, but otherwise supports his wife’s hope of firing Elaine in favour of someone who knows the way Chinatown works and can be relied upon to reinterpret the will in their favour. 

That she wasn’t from “Chinatown” might be why Sam chose Elaine in the first place, realising that she’d carry out his wishes rather than her own interpretation of them. She becomes preoccupied with the identity of the person on the other end of the phone when Sam died while herself growing to like the Wongs and trying to smooth over their familial discord. What she comes to understand is that Sam knew exactly what he was doing, trying to engineer a course correction in the lives of his overly Westernised children to force them to get back in touch with their roots rather than lose their Chinese heritage. But then China is also changing. Sam wanted to be buried in his hometown back on the Mainland, and so Elaine heads to the embassy only to met by an ironic civil servant who has pictures of pandas and pagodas on the wall of his office. He hands Elaine a bunch of tourism pamphlets while instructing her that she should learn her Chinese so she can go back to her “homeland”. “Which one?” she scoffs, chuckling at the newly open China now also commodifying its cultural heritage as a destination for curious Westerners as she chucks the pamphlets in the bin directly outside the embassy. 

Sam’s will may be the ultimate act of patriarchal manipulation, not least in his passing over of his daughter in favour of the prodigal son who had seemingly rejected everything he stood for, but does ultimately allow the family to begin repairing itself while reclaiming their cultural identity. Elaine, who had deftly fended off the patronising overtures from her sleazy boss who refers to her as his “pretty little Chinese lawyer”, also gains a sense of herself as a female warrior like the wuxia comics she loved as a child in Macao while doing her best to protect Sam’s legacy in executing his wishes. An atmospheric evocation of  smokey ‘80s London Chinatown on the brink of change, Ping Pong allows its heroine to begin to find her answers only to discover they lead her right back to source. “Everything moves in cycles” Elaine philosophises envisaging her own new beginning in a changing society. 

Ping Pong screened as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side (野草不盡, Crystal Wong, 2022)

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)

A Holy Family (神人之家, Elvis Lu, 2022)

“Do you think the gods ever helped our family? Or, should I say, do the gods exist?” asks documentary filmmaker Elvis Lu of his brother, a spiritual medium who stayed behind with their devoutly Taoist parents while Lu left for the city 20 years previously and never returned. Lu admits that he likely never would have come back had his mother not contacted him with an ominous message about sorting out her funeral plans, but while filming seems to come to a new accommodation with his familial relationships guilty that he stayed away so long no longer a resentful young man but one beginning to consider the encroachment of mortality.

Lu’s mother confesses that she had pretended to herself that he didn’t exist, hurt that he rarely answered her calls and never visited home even as he points out that she never came to visit him him Taipei either. She feels she “achieved nothing as a parent” and is most regretful that she could not nurture Lu’s talent because she was forced to work long hours to support the family while also taking care of the household. In the opening conversation Lu had coldly answered the phone assuming his mother had called to ask for money, and the hollowness at the centre of the family is largely caused by Lu’s father’s longterm gambling problem which saw him fritter away most of the family’s property and savings leaving the couple financially dependent on their sons for support. Lu’s brother also feels a degree of resentment towards their near silent father, revealing that he does not want to do to his son what his father’s done to them in leaving them nothing but debt and disappointment. That’s one reason he’s always looking for new ways to support the family and has recently begun farming.

The obvious question when his tomato crop is destroyed by floods is why didn’t he ask the gods for guidance first, only it turns out that he did. As Lu points out, the family has endured long years of suffering despite their piety, if his brother is really so close to them why didn’t they help? It’s a question he obviously doesn’t have an answer for, nor does he have one when his son pleads with him to ask the gods for advice as to what to next with the ruined tomato field. His brother’s pained expression hints that he might have doubts despite being able to talk to the gods in his job as a spirit medium handing out advice on investments and other more Earthly worries for a small donation. The family’s upper floor is home to a large altar with several statues of the gods his mother describes as her only friends during the time that both her sons and husband were absent from the family home. Lu’s mother is tiny and now somewhat advanced in age. The stairs appear difficult for her, yet she climbs them every day to pay obsevance to the gods. 

After 20 years in the city all of this religiosity seems even more bizarre to the now adult Lu, but he also also captures ceremonies in the community in which people pray to the gods for health and prosperity suggesting that it’s not so odd after all and that the sense of community may be more important that the rituals themselves. Even so, it’s also true that this almost transactional view of spirituality feeds directly back in to his father’s gambling addiction in which he constantly looks for signs of lucky numbers to place bets or buy lottery tickets. After being diagnosed with glandular cancer and too ill to do much else, Lu’s father still picks up the phone to lay a sizeable bet even while his exasperated wife tries to control her resentment that if only he hadn’t lost his job he’d have had a pension, they’d have kept more of their property, and would all have happier, more comfortable lives. 

In any case, through adopting a more neutral position as a filmmaker Lu is able to better interrogate the realities of his family and his own relationship with it. As the documentary progresses, he sometimes appears on screen holding a large camera on a tripod while someone else films him from another angle. What began with frosty resentment slowly gives way to warmth and reconciliation even while underpinned by a melancholy practicality as Lu helps his parents choose pictures to use at their funeral underlining a sense of oncoming loss as Lu finally takes his mother to see the sea and gently tracks her as she walks along the shore, slowly moving away from him.

A Holy Family screens in London 24th March and in Edinburgh 25th March as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

If We Burn (血在燒, James Leong & Lynn Lee, 2023)

Clocking in at over four hours James Leong & Lynn Lee’s If We Burn (血在燒) provides the most comprehensive overview of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement of any of the recent documentaries focussing on the events leading up to the passing of the Security Law in June 2020. Utilising professionally shot footage of the protests along with that captured by protestors via mobile phone, the film presents a tale of gradually escalating tensions provoked by increasing police violence and an expanding sense of hopeless desperation. 

Focussing largely on a series of climactic events such as the storming of the Legislature, the Yuen Long and Prince Edward Station attacks, and the sieges of the Chinese University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the film posits police brutality as a deliberate tactic that developed into state terrorism designed to intimidate society into submission. In the talking heads segments which occupy the first half of the film, the filmmakers interview a journalist who was present at the Yuen Long attack and was herself beaten by the mysterious vigilantes who raided the station. In this and the attack at the Prince Edward station which followed, it was clear that the target was not solely protestors but the people of Hong Kong who were simply attempting to catch a train in order to go about their ordinary business and became victims of, in the case of the Prince Edward MTR passengers, state violence in an unwarranted police intervention. As the journalist explains, given such a threat to their safety it is not surprising that many were radicalised and that some who had previously been committed to peaceful protest resolved to fight fire with fire. 

Some also regard the police action as a deliberate tactic, that in escalating violence the authorities attempt to provoke those protesting in order to justify even harder crackdowns. It’s also later revealed that police officers infiltrated the movement, dressing as protestors but suddenly attacking those around them giving rise to mistrust and paranoia. A lengthy sequence in which a mob at the airport protest catch a man they believe to be a Mainland police spy hints at the moral ambiguity of the protest movement as they argue with each other what to do with him while the man himself becomes a stand-in for the entirety of the violence inflicted so far. As tensions rise and duplicitous actions of the authorities increase, protestors begin to lose their sense of righteousness agreeing that there no longer is any line they will not cross to secure the freedom of Hong Kong. 

It’s clear that this period of instability has greatly affected the mental health particularly of younger protestors with many thrown into despondency and despair. During the university sieges, many state their intention to die and become martyrs while others talk of suicide and the toll the deaths of friends have already taken on them. During a rally in which older people offer thanks and support to the student protestors a young musician tearfully talks of how the the protest movement’s lack of success has exacerbated his depression and left him feeling hopeless with the only the solidarity of the people around him keeping him going. 

What had begun as a simple request to reject the Extradition Law Amendment Bill soon turns into a series of five demands and finally towards a desire for independence among the more hardline of the protestors who are now so mistrustful of Mainland authoritarianism that they can never consent to living under it. The documentary ends with alarm bells still ringing and a post-apocalyptic vision of battlefield destruction in the quad of the Polytechnic University peppered with small fires and piles of rubble while police drag protestors away from the scene. Talking heads who still appear in masks and goggles with disguised voices look back on the effects of the protests and the various ways they are changing Hong Kong while a piece of onscreen text coldly explains that the Security Law was passed and many have since been arrested or fled into exile. Still, as the alarm bells ring over the closing scene featuring the graffiti that gives the film its title, the documentary seems to suggest that all not yet lost while flame of resistance continues unextinguished.

If We Burn screens at London’s Genesis Cinema 18th March as the Opening Gala of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.