“In reality, we are just the abandoned kids of the riot.” an ageing protestor advises, sitting in a jail cell talking to a younger version of himself about the way that youthful revolutions fail and age erodes ideals. Chan Tze-Woon’s documentary Blue Island (憂鬱之島) places the protestors of today into the protests of the past, asking them to reenact the actions of their forebears while considering what Hong Kong means to them now and how they feel about those who simply decide to leave believing this is a battle that cannot be won.
In a scene that seems to reference Tang Shu Shuen’s China Behind, a young couple fleeing the Cultural Revolution in 1973 attempt to reach Hong Kong by swimming, the camera then finding the same man nearly 50 years later still swimming in the bay. As one of the protestors of today puts it, he fled injustice because he could not fight it as many young Hong Kongers have also now chosen to do in the wake of the Security Law. Yet most of these young people have chosen to stay, most accepting the choice of others to leave though perhaps feeling it premature, explaining that to them Hong Kong is their home and their family.
The old man, Chan Hak-chi, says he saw Hong Kong as a place of freedom yet it was also colonial outpost ruled by another distant and oppressive power. In a key scene a young protestor, Kelvin Tam, is charged with paying the part of a protester arrested during the anti-colonial riots of 1967. “I am Chinese” he answers the English civil servant, in English, when pressed why he resists them as someone who grew up in their colony and attended their schools, “And here belongs to China”. He tells the Englishman that this is his place and it is the Englishman who should leave. The situation then reverses, the now invisible voice on the other side of the table asking him in Cantonese “why do you oppose China?” as someone raised on Chinese soil who studied in government schools. “I’m a Hong Konger”, he replies.
The man whose shoes he’s filling is in many ways his opposite number. The riots of 1967 were led by left-leaning activists who desired a reunification with Mainland China in reaction to oppressive British colonial rule. The scenes of young people being carted off by the police are near identical, but it is true enough how identity is often constructed in opposition. The ’67 rioters declared themselves Chinese as distinct from the British, while Tam identifies himself as a Hong Konger in opposition the Chinese. Yet as Raymond Young, once a young man imprisoned for riot, points out when has Hong Kong ever been able to control its own fate? Other young protestors lament that they are offered only two conflicting narratives of their history, one which begins with British rule as if the island just popped up out of the sea in the early 19th century, and the other penned by Mainland authorities to encourage a One China philosophy.
Now a disappointed old man, Young remarks that he no longer takes an interest in Hong Kong politics also pointing out that in order for you to love your country your country must first love you implying perhaps that he does not particularly feel loved by the Mainland. He may have something in common with Kenneth Lam who arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 after Tiananmen Square and holds up a small scarf with the innocuous message that the people will not forget now that the annual vigils that used to mark the June 4 Incident have been banned. Becoming tearful at a gathering he remarks that he has something in common with the youngsters in that they both dreamed of a better world and have experienced the “shattered faith” of a failed revolution, like Young feeling abandoned in the society he failed to change.
Lam now works as social justice lawyer, defending many of these young people who have been arrested for vague offences such as “incitement to incite public nuisance”, “conspiring to subvert state power”, or simply “rioting”. Chan ends on a montage of faces sitting in the dock accompanied by their occupations and the “crime” with which they have been charged, some young some old, many students but also lawmakers and civl servants, delivery people, your friends and neighbours accused just for voicing an opinion. The court itself is ironically a colonial hangover in which barristers wear wigs and conduct their legal business, if not the questioning, in English. A blue island indeed, Chan ends on a note of sorry futility echoed by an extending list of credits marked only as “anonymous”.
Blue Island screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)