Chan Tze-woon’s past and future Hong Kong
IN A DUSTY INTERROGATION ROOM in Hong Kong, a young activist is brought in for questioning. The year is 1967. He has been arrested for participating in pro-Communist riots against the British colonial regime. Across the table, his captor asks: “You grow up in our colony. You study in our schools. So then why are you fighting against us?” Minutes later, a voice yells “Cut,” revealing this to be a film set in 2020. The camera doesn’t cut though. Instead, it holds steady on the face of the young actor, an actual student protester in present-day Hong Kong, in an unbroken shot that elides any perceptible transition from fiction to documentary. Now there are questions posed at the protester as himself: “You were born on Chinese soil. Nurtured on Chinese soil. Why do you oppose China?”
Such moments of slippage between past and present, reenactment and reality recur throughout Blue Island, a new film by director Chan Tze-woon. The work blends verité footage from the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests with archival material and creative restaging of historical events. Chan cast contemporary protesters to play dissidents from earlier upheavals—the 1967 labor riots in Hong Kong, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising—in a process he describes as “turning the timely into the timeless.”
“They are not professionals, so sometimes it’s painful to watch,” Chan joked about his protester-actors when we recently spoke over Zoom. But imperfect acting is precisely the point. Early on in the film, Chan instructs a protester to “project your own experiences” onto the character of an activist in 1989 Beijing: “You are also playing yourself.” The discordanceof this intergenerational identification becomes clear in a later scene where we hear the divergent slogans chanted at the annual June Fourth candlelight vigil, where real Tiananmen survivors, now middle-aged, invoke the dream of a democratic China while younger attendees call for Hong Kong independence. Blue Island seeks not to reconcile these conflicting visions but rather bring them into relation, showing, through the layered time of the reenactment, that any sense of the future must emerge against the still unfolding aftermath of the past.
This temporal convolution sets Chan’s work apart from other documentaries on the recent Hong Kong protests, such as Revolution of Our Times (2021), Taking Back the Legislature (2020), Do Not Split (2020), and When a City Rises (2021), all of which place viewers squarely in the middle of the action of 2019–20 and proceed with the aim of bearing witness. Chan’s earlier film Yellowing (2016), on the 2014 Umbrella Movement, hewed to a similar path. But new conditions of protest in 2019 demanded a more inventive approach. The deliberately faceless nature of the movement made individual stories highly sensitive and dangerous to record. Meanwhile, the rise of the smartphone livestream, with protesters broadcasting in real time, rendered the “timeliness” of the documentary image redundant.
The broader scope of Blue Island allowed Chan to shift into a deliberately “untimely” register, to ponder how the intensity of the present may cool into a quieter history that lives and breathes in quotidian time. Recreations of past struggles in the film often flow into footage following the real lives of older dissidents in the present: a white-haired Cultural Revolution refugee who now routinely swims in the water that first carried him to Hong Kong; a student representative in the Tiananmen protests, now a civil rights lawyer who pores over stacks of files in a cramped office; a leftist activist jailed during the 1967 anti-colonial riots, now a successful businessman and self-professed “patriot” of China.
In the emotional centerpiece of the film, the former rioter comes face-to-face with his young double, a student protester fighting for the radically different goal of Hong Kong independence. In a dimly lit jail cell on Chan’s film set, suspended in the impossible space of reenactment, they speak to each other across generational and political rifts. “Doing time is hard, but being in the real world afterwards is even harder,” the old man says to the young man, who also faces potential imprisonment. “Time is the greatest test. Time will slowly erode your ideals.” But there is longing in his voice. “Most of us have been abandoned. In reality, we are just the abandoned kids of the riot.”
More than an exercise in melancholia, this staged encounter points to a kind of speculative history. If the old man presents his past as the young man’s future, then the young man’s own imperfect performance of this past opens the future up to alternative routes. Reenactment, writes film theorist Bill Nichols, “resurrects the past to reanimate it with the force of a desire,” imbuing events once deemed sealed and finalized with new possibility. At a moment of post-traumatic impasse in Hong Kong, Blue Island turns to the embodied crossings of reenactment to suggest that the past is never finished, and neither is Hong Kong.
Blue Island begins a run at New York’s Metrograph theater on July 29.