HISTORY is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,' James Joyce once lamented. Local film-maker Lau Shing-hon probably could identify with that sentiment well. As someone who has witnessed first-hand Hong Kong's rollercoaster ride through social turmoil and historical landmarks, Lau has seen more than his share of garish images, events that still plague his consciousness. 'I can still remember my eyes going all watery because of the teargas police fired into the crowds,' he says, referring to his experiences during the notorious riots in 1967. 'And I nearly got hit by glass bottles which were flying around everywhere then - all this and I was just someone watching on the sidelines. Bombs were everywhere and people were burned alive. It was a horrifying experience.' What makes life confusing, Lau says, is how the passage of time unleashes the most hilarious of ironies on man. Three decades after battering pro-Beijing activists while trying to put down the unrest, the local police force had to pledge allegiance to an authority represented by the five-star red banner. 'Hong Kong is a society in which contradictions and absurdities run amok,' he says. Lau's first celluloid work for more than 15 years, One Body Two Flags, is his way of documenting the twisted psyche that most of the Hong Kong population has felt over the past four decades. The pivot for the film, unsurprisingly, is the transfer of sovereignty two years ago. What sets this film apart from the myriad handover-related films is its subject matter: One Body Two Flags is a historical account of Hong Kong viewed through the eyes of a veteran police officer, someone who finds 1997 the latest addition to a lifelong list of turbulence. 'The feelings of the police force were probably the most special among everyone in Hong Kong during the handover because they had this problem of loyalty,' Lau says. 'All along the police had to pledge allegiance to the Queen; and then all of a sudden everything changed - the flags, the coat-of-arms, everything - and what's more they had to pretend that nothing had happened. It was very peculiar.' The setting for the hour-long film is the evening of June 30, 1997, the eve of Hong Kong's official return to China. Sonny (John Chan Wing-fai), a veteran police officer in his 50s, is driving his elder cousin Wai (Lee Lung-kay) to the airport. Wai, a sinister retired cop with a shady past, is in a hurry to leave Hong Kong because he distrusts the mainland 'lefties'. During the ride to Kai Tak he recounts his 'heroic' acts - bashing pro-Taiwan demonstrators in the 1950s, assaulting arrested left-wing students in 1967 and wreaking havoc at the ICAC headquarters in the 1970s. Wai's bragging, however, only evokes memories that Sonny - who has long been an accomplice of Wai's in all the misdemeanours - would prefer to be buried for good. A lengthy part of the film is dedicated to the 1967 riots and how baton-wielding and abusive police officers unleashed savage acts against detained demonstrators. Wai is depicted as having raped some of the female detainees. Research for the film was a difficult process. Lau was shocked to find that the Government basically owned - or claimed to own - no footage about the events of 1967. However, authentic documentary footage found in the BBC's archives - shots featuring officers administering extreme violence that were never seen in Hong Kong - was spliced into the film, adding a more powerful dimension to the piece. 'The police have long had a tumultuous relationship with left-wingers in Hong Kong,' Lau says. 'The intensity of the violence in 1967 was unprecedented - basically, both sides were out there to kill each other. 'Traditionally, the police were there to combat the left - officers who were there during the 1960s would have harboured that feeling - so it would be an uneasy feeling to have to swear loyalty to an SAR Government that was basically under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.' One Body Two Flags may sound intense, but Lau denies the film is a political one. 'It has strong social and political flavours, true, but I only wanted that to be part of a whole in which personal feelings towards Hong Kong, as well as their own problems in dealing with their family, could be aired,' he says. Aside from historical flashbacks, the film also dithers in Sonny's domestic crisis. He has a row with his children who bemoan the fact that they gave up the chance to emigrate to Canada; an increasingly frigid relationship with his wife leads him to prostitutes; and his self-esteem is beaten down as he indulges in cowardice and inefficiency under the auspices of Wai. It is only after Wai's departure that Sonny becomes himself again and finds his own true values. The way One Body Two Flags was born is as much a journey through difficult terrain as Sonny's fictitious life is. It was made with a budget of $900,000, half of that from the Arts Development Council and the other alms from Lau's friends and associates. The cast agreed to fees that were below their normal rates, and quite a few of his colleagues and students contributed with cameos or production skills. The timeframe was lengthy, too, mainly because of Lau's full-time work as co-ordinator of film and television studies at the Academy for Performing Arts. Although the script was finished as early as 1996, main shooting - 11 days in total - did not happen until summer last year. Post-production for the film was completed just in time for the premiere at the Hong Kong Arts Centre last month. The two screenings were packed but Lau is still negotiating with mainstream cinemas for a major one. In any case, this project is a satisfying return to the fray for Lau, who belonged to the New Wave pack of directors that emerged during the late 1970s. The banality that infected the 80s and early 90s drove him away, first to make docudramas for the ICAC and then into academia. 'The past 10 years have seen more films tackling the storytelling concept,' he says. 'Films should evoke collective memories and emotions.' With its broad social vista, One Body Two Flags may well accomplish the job with flying colours.