There’s a scene in Christopher Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy that seems to perfectly capture Hong Kong’s spirit. A little girl named Little Red Hood leaves school in Sheung Wan, stops by a Catholic church for a brief service and pays homage to a Buddhist altar before making her way home to a windswept fishing village. There, she greets a shrine of her own making, where the Virgin Mary sits alongside Choi Sun, the Buddha, McDull’s principal and Santa Claus. It’s a perfect testament to this city’s effortless syncretism, its unique ability to live between worlds without any awareness that it is doing something unusual.
Hong Kong Trilogy is a set of three interrelated short films, Preschooled, Preoccupied and Preposterous, that casts a multi-generational gaze over the lives of ordinary Hongkongers. In a peculiar blend of documentary and fiction, characters tell their stories through voiceovers captured from real-life interviews, while on screen they act in loosely scripted situations. The middle section of the movie, Preoccupied, was filmed on location at Occupy Central, but its extraordinary on-the-ground scenes of the Umbrella Movement are only part of the story. This is a film about Hong Kong in a 2015 – a city coming to terms with its own identity in the face of an uncertain future.
Doyle made the film with the help of two producers, Ken Hui and Jenny Suen, who financed the production with US$124,126 raised from crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Suen says the film began life as Preschooled, which was commissioned by the Hong Kong Film Festival and Youku. “The process of making the first film was so invigorating, we decided to make it feature length,” she says. But the project’s unusual nature made it difficult to raise funding: with no stars and no real story, there was no hook for investors. “I didn’t think we were going to raise enough money for it,” says Suen. “Then the Umbrella Movement happened.”
Suen was in the crowd of protesters on September 28, 2014 when police fired tear gas, leading to the spontaneous occupation of streets around Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok. Suen watched as a tent city emerged on Harcourt Road and people came together to build study halls, pro-democracy artworks – even a farm where roadside shrubs had once grown. “I never knew Hong Kong people could be so ironic, I never knew Hong Kong people could be so creative – and then I saw them in the streets,” she says. When she learned that a postman had delivered a letter to one of the tents, she told Doyle, who insisted they recreate the scene for the movie.
Though it owes its existence to the Umbrella Movement, both narratively and financially, Hong Kong Trilogy isn’t meant to be a film about Occupy. “The questions people were asking when they took to the streets—’Who are we? What are we today?’—were the same questions we had been asking for a year,” says Suen. Each of the film’s characters are etching out their existence in a city that is at once hostile and accommodating. Beat Box is a young rapper who is trying to make sense of the changes around him; To Wun, the owner of Central music bar Sense 99, has spent a life finding art between the city’s cracks. We hear from children standing up to bullies and elderly who share their traumatic journey to Hong Kong, hiding from Chinese border guards and swimming through choppy waters in the dark of night. The film floats through their lives, never plunging too deeply beneath the surface to lose sight of the landscape around it.
Suen conducted the interviews that form the film’s emotional heart, but it also benefits from Christopher Doyle’s greatest strength as a filmmaker, which is the way he can channel the genius loci of a place. Doyle is renowned for his cinematography in Wong Kar-wai films like Chungking Express (1994), which revels in the patina of Hong Kong’s gritty streets. In Porte de Choisy, Doyle’s contribution to the 2006 anthology film Paris je t’aime, he finds a fantastical hidden life amidst the grey concrete blocks of Paris’ Chinatown. Hong Kong Trilogy is no different, distilling its different locations and characters into a concentrated version of Hong Kong that strikes a chord with anyone who lives in and loves this city.
“No one’s seen Hong Kong like this – that’s the first thing all the foreign film critics said to me,” says Suen. “No one knew Hong Kong people could be creative, no one had heard their voices like this before.”
That’s especially true in the film’s treatment of Occupy. Doyle, Suen and Hui filmed on Harcourt Road in the early hours of the morning so as not to draw a crowd. This produced footage of the occupied space at its most tranquil: there are scenes of a lone woman studying at a desk, an artist tilling the streetside farm, an old man picking up cardboard to recycle. These images reflect the day-to-day reality of Occupy, which was an exercise in community-building as much as it was a protest. It may be surprising to anyone whose experience of Occupy was limited to conflict-fuelled news reports, but for those who lived it, the portrayal rings true to life.
Hong Kong Trilogy has generated a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but reviews from international film critics have been mixed. The most negative assessments seem to dwell on the film’s perceived aimlessness; Variety panned it for “focusing on the undramatic and inconsequential.” But there is as much truth in the quotidian as in the extraordinary. “We’re celebrating the fact that this is life, this is complex,” says Suen. That’s a goal enabled by the film’s genre-bending format. Suen describes Hong Kong Trilogy as the opposite of an auteur film. “The real pleasure of our style is the sense of freedom in our process,” she says. “It liberated us. We give people a space and ask them to show us what they can do.” This is ground-up, grassroots cinema.
Although there is an undercurrent of conflict and anxiety throughout the movie, its treatment of Hong Kong is ultimately optimistic. “We decided we need to focus on what makes us a community rather than what divides us,” says Suen. Less than two decades after the handover, Hong Kong faces yet another deadline: 2047, the year when “one country, two systems” will come to an end. “It’s the only place I know that, constitutionally, has an expiration date,” says Suen. But whereas Hong Kong’s pre-handover jitters prompted an exodus to countries like Canada and Australia, 31-year-old Suen sees a shift in attitude among people her age and younger. “I think my generation looks at that [upcoming date] not with a sense of loss or nostalgia but with a fighting spirit,” she says.
That idea seems to underpin the final scene of Hong Kong Trilogy, when all of its disparate characters come together on a rocky bit of shoreline. It’s a romantic representation of togetherness that is, yes, a bit naïve. But it also brings to mind the scene earlier in the movie when Little Red Hood is tending to her altar, its collection of idols preposterous yet, in its particular context, entirely natural. This is Hong Kong: an unlikely city that somehow makes perfect sense.