Hong Kong’s Battle on Screen: Taking Back The Legislature 佔領立法會 (2020)

and Inside The Red Brick Wall 理大圍城 (2020)

 

An Essay by Zhang Yuqi

 Introduction

The definition of independent cinema is highly ambiguous. Taking United States cinema as an example, the word “independent” has been broadly used since the early emergence of cinema in the U.S. The general audience for U.S. cinema conceives independent films as normally low-budget productions, made by young filmmakers with a strong personal interest, far away from the impact of the major-studio-controlled mainstream American film industry (Tzioumakis, 2017, p.1). On the other hand, China’s independent film industry was once considered “underground” for its separation from the mainstream and from the strict censorship of the Chinese government. The definitions of Hong Kong’s independent film as a discourse is ongoing and the meaning of “independent” in the context of Hong Kong is constantly being reshaped.

Hong Kong’s independent documentaries have already covered various themes of Hong Kong in the post-1997 period. Many are tied to the political movements and protests that are continuously happening at a local level. For example, “the demolition of colonial iconic landmarks such as the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier in 2006-2007, the Anti-High-Speed Rail protest in 2008-2010, and the Umbrella Movement in 2014 have undermined the economic discourse that has determined the fate of Hong Kong” (Yee, 2019). Hong Kong’s social movements have intensified since the 2003 protests, with more and more documentaries being made reflecting social unrest and political struggles, which raised various public debates.

Tracing back to the early history of Hong Kong independent films, the emergence of independent productions can be found in the 1960s with Shu Shuen Tang’s works The Arch (1970) and China Behind (1974). Moreover, Aitken and Ingham (2014), on the other hand, track the earliest independent documentary in Hong Kong to the 1970s, when filmmakers captured footages of a protest in support of China’s claim over the Diaoyu Islands. The independent documentary in Hong Kong was started with a political trend and developed further. Later, Fruit Chan’s revolutionary independent films began in the mid-1990s when the mainstream Hong Kong film industry faced a dramatic decline. Chan’s Hong Kong trilogy during and after the 1997 Hong Kong handover—Made in Hong Kong (1997), The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (1999)—reached a broader audience and achieved commercial success.

The most recent Umbrella Movement and the latest Hong Kong 2019 Protests unsurprisingly triggered the young filmmakers within the city to make independent documentary films. If the commercial success of eye-catching low-budget independent work Ten Years (2015), with its five short stories evoking themes of anxiety and disappearance, brings to attention the reality of increasing political censorship in Hong Kong (Lee, 2019), the newly launched Hong Kong National Security Law, signed at 30 June 2020, puts more pressure on the local independent film industry, as well as many other creative industries. In Ten Years, one of the stories examines national security legislation, and it is considered a precise prediction of the future of Hong Kong.

Since Hong Kong’s political struggle and social unrest has never ended, it is not surprising that the recent 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests have triggered the independent filmmaker’s creativity in response to the dramatic social unrest over such a long period of time. Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 Social Unrest has become a main theme, bringing a refreshing independent imagery to the audience. Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall were screened as a unit at the 2020 Hong Kong Independent Film Festival. Since the tickets were sold out rapidly, extra screenings were requested over and over again since its first release. If we consider the local decline of Hong Kong’s commercial film industry, the popularity of these independent works has demonstrated the audience’s search for a localized perspective of civic discourse.

Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall, these two documentary shorts have documented two incidents, respectively: the attacking and occupying the Hong Kong Legislative Council Complex on 1st July 2019 (taking place on the Memorial Day of the handover); and the Siege of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) from November 17th to 29th, 2019. Both incidents attracted much attention among the local people in Hong Kong and also the international media. Screening these two incidents as a unit not only draws a parallel between the filmic space of The Legislative Council Complex, which stands for law and justice, and a university campus, which stands for wisdom and reasoning.

A recent published article “Propagandist or objective observer? Independent documentaries in/on Hong Kong’s recent social movements” (Troost, 2020) also pays attention to Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall, framing the independent documentaries’ function as operating within Hong Kong’s “movement field.” Troost argues that the three main functions of these films are to contribute to civic discourse and building a civic culture, international advocacy and serving as a form of “memory work.”

The struggles of these political films include the self-censorship of both the filmmakers and audience, the difficulties associated with distribution, and the restrictions and repressions from the state and governmental authorities. Due to censorship and safety concerns, the documentary filmmakers shield their identities. What are the differences between these new forms of documentary and 24/7 TV news? How do the filmmakers position themselves in this feature? What problems do independent films face in distribution? This article bears witness to the influence of Hong Kong’s independent documentaries on the local community through close reading, while at the same time addressing the question of how the local independent filmmakers deal with the increasing censorship under the National Security Law. This article engages with the shared memory and trauma of Hongkongers. It approaches these topics via textual analysis of Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall, reflecting upon interviews with the filmmakers and participatory observations at grass-roots film screenings.

Taking Back the Legislature (2020)

Asking “Why has nothing has changed since the death of three people?” the young protesters do not want to hear the old cliché speech at the frontline. They want freedom, democracy, justice, rule of law and integrity to be truly owned by every individual that is supposed to be served by the Hong Kong government. The protesters swear to defend freedom. The camera captures the interaction between the young protesters and the iconic Hong Kong pro-democracy female politician, Claudia Mo Man-ching. In tears, Mo begs these young people to think of their own mothers and to not make regrettable and unworthy choices. “The rioting will be jailed for 10 years!” Mo shouts at the young crowd. Still, the protesters dissent, damaging property and clashing with police forces.

After several hours of confrontation between protesters and the police, the protesters break the gate and successfully invade the council chamber. The transparent glass door shatters into chaotic fragments. The initially solemn and inviolable rule of law and the Legislative Council is left hollow and broken. The police, the press, the radical protesters, the pro-democracy officials and the non-violent protesters crowd the camera’s frame. It seems inevitable that the Legislative Council shall be “taken back” by its own people. Those destroyed dead objects can be refurnished, and the grafftied walls can be cleaned, but the struggle in people’s hearts will not be easily dissipated. This traumatic memory will be shared by the people who experienced the event for a long time.

The documentary filmmakers use their eyes, as well as the camera, to closely document this historical moment of Social Unrest. There are live videos and other footage from on-site journalists at the time. The biggest difference between this particular film and footage from social media sources is that the editing reflects the duration of the event from the perspective of a participant, as opposed to a witness.

Taking Back the Legislature is thoughtful and as well as critical in some sense. As an audience, we follow the protesters’ first-hand experience, running with the camera, experiencing this struggle in solidarity with the protesters, and at the same time feeling that this historical moment is worthy of reflection. Some voices and emotions may be forgotten by the press, but for those who have experienced the movement firsthand, this incident may be conceived as an imperative battle. For the general public as well, it is necessary to confront the deep social contradictions and the fundamental problems within society.

Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020)

Inside the Red Brick Wall documents one of the largest confrontations between the HK police and the protesters in the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, which were triggered by the Anti-Extradition Law which was launched by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam. To a degree, this is an unprecedented and absurd siege in the history of Hong Kong right after the battle in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The siege environment within the film is echoed by the darkened cinema theatre, with the audience feeling trapped and repressed, as if it has traveled through time and space to experience the this 16-day long battle inside of the red brick wall of the campus of the PolyU, a vibrant urban university located in the heart of Hong Kong.

Among the besieged protesters, the question of what actions would best serve their aims quickly became the main topic. They might will be arrested if they left the campus. Those middle school students who would go home with their school principals can only ensure that they can take a shower, eat and rest comfortably when they arrive home at night. No one knows what comes after. Leaving the scene means abandoning their partners, and it may also make the ones who are left behind even more insecure. They suffer both physical and mental torture, as well as fear of being injured or even fear of death. From the Anti-Extradition Bill to five demands and to a more radical claim of “independence.” This anarchist movement was placed with no leaders, from bottom to top, so leaving or staying for fighting is up to each protestor’s own decisions and the online-platform takes the major part of mobilization.

In a recent interview, one of the anonymous filmmakers described the violence of the protests, explaining the vulnerability and anxiety of these protestors in the face of police violence, topics that were rarely covered by traditional news sources. By contrast, these documentary filmmakers enter the scene themselves, listening to the people inside the besieged university and carefully evaluating whether to film the protestors or not. At the end of the film, the filmmakers return to the frontline of the struggle, breaking with what Bill Nichols calls the observational mode of documentary filmmaking (Ng 2020, 19-20). This reflexive scene not only shows the presence of the filmmakers, but offers viewers an engaged perspective, breaking down cinema’s fourth wall. Some of the footage, such as shots of female students breaking down in tears, was cut during the editing process, based on the filmmakers’ stated goal of avoiding overtly emotional or pretentious scenes. This decision allows the audience to critically reflect upon the events portrayed and make judgements for themselves.

Outside the besieged red brick wall, average citizens lead spontaneous rescue missions. With these spontaneous rescues from the volunteered citizens just outside of PolyU, should we keep resisting? Or, is it more reasonable to get out safely with the rescue, and not fighting a battle against the police which is doomed to fail? The besieged young protestors deliberate on whether or not to continue their action. The banner behind them reads, “University, Graduation, Society, and Employment,” (大學,畢業,社會,就業), which seems to provide a deeply ironic commentary on the events taking place.

The protestors’ fears demonstrate a distrust of the police. According to the Hong Kong Police Force Support Rating conducted by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (2020), the satisfaction with the Hong Kong Police Force has dramatically declined since June 2019, from 61% to 35.3% in November 2019 after PolyU was besieged. In Inside the Red Brick Wall, we do not hear the voice of the police. What’s heard are the complex emotions, the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of the trapped protesters. The siege of PolyU not only impacts the protestors physically, but also mentally. Again, the filmmakers have said that they did not intend to exaggerate the emotional aspects of the film. Rather, they cut out some of the break-down moments of young protesters and consider that being too radical or sentimental may take the film too far away from the truth (Ng 2020, p.22).

 

Hong Kong’s Battle on Screen and the Civic Discourses

Unlike Tammy Cheung and Augustine Lam’s observational mode documentaries, which capture the intimate reality of social justice movements, Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall have not reached wider audiences (Ingham, 2019). The high demands of the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers’ films not only involve audiences directly in the collective memory of the local protest movement, but also express the shared traumatic feelings of the common people in the community who also experience the Social Unrest.

The experience of watching the film together with other people can be understood not only as civic discourse, but also as a therapeutic process for those who participated in these traumatic protests. In other words, for people who lived in the city, they are trapped by the pandemic and at the same time the uncertainty of Social Unrest, similar to those who were trapped behind the red brick wall. Taking Back the Legislature is about going inside of a space, occupying the material world of an idea where the rule of law is supposed to be settled; while Inside Red Brick Wall is trying to get out of the besieged space, the Poly U campus, where knowledge and wisdom are meant to be glorified. One is exciting, while the other is daunting, from the collective to the individual.

The post-Umbrella documentaries such as Yellowing (2016), one of the most well-known films of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Social Unrest, raise the question of how documentarists try to see beyond their own vision, participating in Hong Kong’s story. If filming Yellowing is director Chan Tze-woon’s journey of soul-searching (Ng, 2019), Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall seek a more participatory approach to documentary truth. There were no initial intentions for these filmmakers to join in the unforeseen events. But the camera was inevitably forced to document these events, which clearly reflect a political stance, such as the controversial police brutality and the degree of their use of force. The filmmakers have no control over social actors and the following incidents. The violent elements increased dramatically compared to the footage involving police use of force in Yellowing. With more and more violence happening between the protesters and police, violent scenes need to be documented not only by the filmmaker’s hand-held cameras, but also preserved in the memory of citizens witnessing these violent scenes, which became a norm during the Hong King 2019-2020 Social Unrest.

Enoch Tam (2019) addresses the sense of impotence expressed across Hong Kong in response to “Mainlandization.” This sense of disempowerment felt stronger during the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests and the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law. Tam also recounts the history of the Queen’s Pier Movement (2006-2007): “… in the very beginning of the movement, what caught the attention of the general public most was not the idea of space but the notion of ‘collective memory.’” Tam’s observation shows how a public space functions in Hong Kong’s political activism and what it means to the city and its people. The film further examines how a documented historical piece can create a special space for a shared memory, or so-called “collective retention” (Stiegler, 2019), for local people, given the continuously high-demands for a healing process from the traumas experienced during these times. The documentarists are not only the camera people or participants in the Social Unrest, but also creators of a visual and emotional space that leaves room for shared civic discourses and memories, bonding filmmakers, activists, and audience.

Distribution

Ying E Chi (影意志) is a non-profit arts organization, created in 1997 by a number of Hong Kong independent filmmakers to promote local independent films. The Hong Kong Independent Film Festival (HKindieFF 香港獨立電影節) was established in 2008 by Ying E Chi. The festival focuses on independent productions. V-artivist, which works in tandem with Ying E Chi (影行者), is a grassroots organization devoted to local documentary filmmaking. V-artivist organizes the annual Hong Kong Social Movement Film Festival. These organizations provide opportunities for young independent filmmakers to shine and bring their ideas to new audiences.

Mainstream commercial cinema, especially in Hong Kong, often overlooks independent films, especially those with politically sensitive content. Therefore, it is quite difficult for independent films to reach a wider audience. Louis Koo Cinema is a venue designed to combat this aversion to controversy, founded by the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Local independent films are also screening on university campuses, in book stores and on the street.

According to Vincent Cui, the founder of Ying E Chi (影意志), L Cinema, a fully Korean funded theatre located in Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong Island, is one of the earliest cinemas to screen Yellowing (Ho 2017). Unfortunately, on 26th August 2020, L Cinema has suspended their operations, citing the Covid-19 pandemic and the expiration of their Tenancy Agreement as reasons. This could be the first cinema shut-down due to Covid-19 (Ryan, 2020). The close of L Cinema shows a sign of increasing hardship on the distribution side of Hong Kong independent cinema. According to a news report (Lai, 2020), theatres and cinemas in Hong Kong island have refused to screen independent films with politically sensitive content. Despite high demand from audiences, the distribution of these films remains difficult to achieve, even though staff volunteer their time to help.

Outside of Hong Kong, Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall have reached an international audience. Taking Back the Legislature was nominated for Best Documentary at the 57th Golden Horse Awards, an acclaimed film festival that takes place in Taiwan annually. Inside the Red Brick Wall won the Best Editing award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), a prestigious international film festival. These achievements have encouraged Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers to continue making work that flies in the face of Hong Kong’s establishment film industry. Through their eyes, we walk in the shoes of countless unnamed protestors, and see actions that would otherwise go unseen.

Sharing a viewing experience in a cinema with the filmmakers, as well as other audiences, is an inspiring and heart-connecting activity. With post-screening Q&A sessions, the audience can ask questions or give comments to the filmmakers right after viewing the film. The independent films bring voices from the local community, grassroots activists, and marginalized groups. At the same time, independent films help raise questions for the community. For example, issues such as the fundamental problems that related to the massive political unrest and other problems that truly influence everyone on a daily basis in the society. The direct interaction between the film, audience and the filmmaker has formed a communication circle inside of the cinema space. However, this cinematic space faces a crisis due to the political sensitivity of these films under the National Security Law.

Increasing Censorship under The National Security Law

Censorship has always been a tool to control different flows of information as well as the ideas of the citizens (Caso, 2008, p.3). “Hong Kong’s restricted autonomy is manifested in its public television programs (TVB) and government-produced documentary films, which practice self-censorship to avert criticism of HKSAR governance and Chinese politics, and manage to ‘maintain the authority and interests of the unelected status quo’” (Ng, 2019, as cited in Aitken and Ingham, 2014). Because Hong Kong’s degree of autonomy has been rapidly changing, especially after 2019’s Social Unrest, the degree of self-censorship and repression from the authorities continues escalating.

According to a report by online news website Stand News (2020), two hours before the planned screenings of Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall on 21 September, 2020, the theatres were informed by the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration from The Government of the HKSAR that the films were graded Level Three: no one younger than 18 years of age is allowed to watch the film. The distribution organization, Ying E Chi, was asked to add “additional descriptions,” noting, for example, “possible criminal offences under current laws,” and “the contents of the film are unproven or misleading.” Ying E Chi had to compromise in order to screen the films. This is a recent example of Hong Kong’s effort to censor public screenings of independent documentaries under the National Security Law.

This increasing censorship is a concern for local independent filmmakers. In the case of China, independent filmmakers “are under state observation, persecution, and ostracization.” Some indies tried to survive under the state policy and some left the Mainland in exile (Fan 2019). Independent films were strictly controlled by China’s repressive state apparatus. Hong Kong has been a destination for exile Chinese independent filmmakers such as Huang Wenhai (黃文海) and Ying Liang (應亮). In the case of Hong Kong independent cinema, there have been emerging discussions on how local young filmmakers negotiate their creativity with Hong Kong’s severe political situation. How can local indie filmmakers deal with the increasing level of political censorship? Moreover, possibly due to political reasons, Hong Kong’s mainstream i-Cable TV has fired the journalists in one of their best reporting teams on China News (Radio Free Asia, 2020). The censorship in Hong Kong has reached a new degree, shrinking the space for the press and creative industry.

Chan Tze-woon (陳梓桓), the director of Yellowing, has addressed his concerns on the unclear bottom lines of National Security Law in a Stand News interview. Chan says, “I worry about the biding time for punishment. I am mentally prepared for being arrested at any time, but I will not stop filming and screening my works.” As an independent filmmaker, Chan believes that film ideas should be freely expressed and filmmakers should keep making films even when budget and distribution are very limited. Chan Tze-woon’s ongoing documentary project, Blue Island, is about Hong Kong’s 2019 Social Unrest. The crowdfunding of this project on Kickstarter had raised HK$ 1,651,133 from 2075 supporters as of November 2020 (Chan, 2020). The success of raising this funding from the public gives hope for future independent projects. Chan’s determined voice encourages other Hong Kong independent filmmakers to keep making their own creative work. He argues that “it is not because there is free space to make films, but film creation is moving towards freedom” (Cheng, 2020).

Yellowing Still

Still from Yellowing (2016)

Like Chan, Vincent Cui believes that independent cinema should maintain its spirit, expressing ideas freely should be consistent, meaning authentic independent filmmakers should not compromise their ideas and creativity because of the expanding censorship laws. Vincent Cui (Cheng 2020) also suggests that the National Security Law may not influence the mainstream film industry, as many filmmakers have chosen to embrace the market of Mainland China, but it will create more dilemmas for Hong Kong independent filmmakers. The independent cinema in Hong Kong faces the threat of being more marginalized than ever before. Take Yellowing (2016) and Lost in the Fumes (2017) as examples (Cheng, 2020). Yellowing is a documentary about the 2014 Umbrella Movement and was funded by the Film Development Fund (FDF). Lost in the Fumes, however, failed to gather funding, because its subject, politician and activist Edward Leung, once showed public support for Hong Kong’s independence. Nora Lam, the director of Lost in the Fumes, expresses her concerns about the National Security Law. The idea of leaving Hong Kong crosses her mind, but she has decided not to become an exile—traveling abroad cannot solve the problems at home. As Lam says, “If I ever leave home, I hope it is simply because I want to live somewhere else, rather than running away from the fearful situation in Hong Kong.”

The impact of the newly launched Hong Kong National Security Law remains uncertain in Hong Kong people’s life. However, the struggle of young independent filmmakers, some working anonymously, continues to provide vital and instructive acts of resistance––simply keep shooting.

Conclusion

This article aims to introduce Hong Kong independent films by closely looking at the newly released independent documentaries, Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall. I draw parallels between the two incidents captured in these films, the political struggles, chaotic scenes, and shared memories. The traumas of the filmed subjects, the filmmakers, and the audience are highlighted in my exploration of the film texts. Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall function as a collective memory of the people who participated in this historical moment. Details in these films not only bring the audience to the exact moment of the battle, but also create a critical space for the audience to reflect upon these issues and unsettled political problems.

Struggles and battles may not see a clear end. But these young Hong Kong independent filmmakers will keep their cameras rolling, documenting issues in Hong Kong, even with the increasing censorship. Since the future of the creative space is still uncertain in Hong Kong, confronting the anxiety and fear becomes essential to these young independent filmmakers. Their voices, the act of documenting, and their creativities will add more to the local independent film community and its civic discourses. The films will keep being screened as long as people want to express their ideas and reflect on their impact on society.

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