Hong Kong, city we no longer know, the theme of crowdfunded film by Rita Hui
Filmmaker Rita Hui hopes her latest feature will shake people out of their indifference to recent political events in the city
In life, you have to roll with the punches. That's why director Rita Hui Nga-shu quickly assembled her small crew in the small hours of December 7 last year and dashed to the tent village on Harcourt Road to start shooting. Rumours were rife that police were about to clear the site that had become the epicentre of the umbrella movement, and Hui felt she had to film actor Lo Chun-yip against this watershed event in Hong Kong history.
As it turned out, all was quiet at the barricades that morning. But unless there are further street clashes this summer, the moody montage from last year will probably form the final images of her third feature film, Pseudo Secular.
A lecturer at the school of creative media at City University, Hui, 39, conceived the project three years ago to try to make some sense of the conflicts that kept erupting across the city.
As she began developing a script in 2012, controversies arose, such as the eviction of Choi Yuen Tsuen residents, the mega-budget express rail link with Guangzhou and efforts to introduce so-called national education into the school curriculum to nurture patriotism.
"Hong Kong's troubles have not stopped. I feel I have to pen a story to reflect the city's woes," Hui says.
She hopes her independent movie will deliver a punch like Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), Francois Truffaut's debut feature about a misunderstood teenager who is seen as a troublemaker. "Towards the end of the movie, the boy runs away from a detention centre only to find he has nowhere to go when he arrives at the seaside; it is precisely what we have been feeling about Hong Kong for the past few years - we have no way out. We are desperate," says Hui.
Pseudo Secular involves eight characters whose three storylines express Hui's observations and unease about shifts in Hong Kong society. They include a troubled social activist who becomes close to the mother of his girlfriend after she is jailed for taking part in a rally, a poorly paid barista and his mainland girlfriend, as well as the third-generation owner of a soy sauce factory, a news reporter, and a dropout who becomes an internet sensation through her charismatic selfies.
Although inspired by political changes in Hong Kong, the plot aims instead to show how the cost is expressed in the lives of different people and "wake up those ignorant of what our city is facing".
Hui adds: "We may appear to have won a battle in the fight against national education, but we haven't. The government has not responded to weekly demonstrations. That disquiet is overshadowing the whole city."
Hui plans to splice footage of actual events, not only from the political Occupy protests and June 4 vigils but also the Cheung Chau bun festival, into her drama because they are all important elements of the cityscape. Its Chinese title, Fung King, literally translates as "landscape" and its meaning is three-fold, Hui says.
"Firstly, each character represents a community or district - and, in turn, a unique landscape - all of which are changing very rapidly.
"Secondly, I want to explore what all these vanishing landmarks mean to us, including the demolished Queen's Pier and others from the days of British rule that make up part of Hong Kong's history. Have people noticed their disappearance at all or do we simply focus attention on our mobile phones?
"Because when we actually look up, the city is no longer the one we used to know."
Finally, by having her reporter character interview real people, Hui delves into the stories of elderly residents who had emigrated from the mainland in their youth.
"It's another way of depicting our city - getting to know the hard work and attachment of those who built and shaped our city," she says.
Hui had applied for Arts Development Council support for the project, and was informed last year she had secured HK$240,000 - barely enough to get the film made. Even so, the wheels of administration grind slowly and although they have had to start filming, funds have not come through, so cast and crew are getting little or no pay.
That is why Hui and her collaborators started a crowdfunding campaign on Taiwan-based platform Flying V (flyingv.cc/project/6024), to raise another HK$200,000 so they can cover the post-production and distribution costs as well as pay the crew.
They are looking for wider distribution with more community screenings. To enhance its impact, the group also plan to publish a photo book to document the trove of research material, including community discussions and interviews, which did not make it into the movie.
As the June 15 deadline approaches, the group have only raised about half of the amount. But even if they fail to meet the target, Hui says they will continue shooting and find a solution later.
Hui has the support of her largely amateur cast, among them musician and sometime actor Sham Ka-ki, who plays barista Ah-yin.
First recruited off the streets for The Winds of September, Heiward Mak Hei-yan's 2008 debut feature, 25-year-old Sham recalls his audition for Hui's movie was nothing like his previous castings. Instead of showing off his acting skills, Sham was asked to describe what 2012 and 2014 meant to him.
His short stint as a property agent - a job he took to satisfy his parents' expectation - had many parallels to his role.
"My personal experience is very similar to my role as Ah-yin," says Sham. "While I dealt with clients who bought luxury flats with floor-to-ceiling windows, which I could never afford, Ah-yin serves cups of coffee that cost more than HK$40 each but finds it hard to buy a meal costing more than HK$30."
Although such brutal contrasts may not apply to Sham, he empathises with the majority of the working class who are shackled by low wages and social status.
"Ah-yin's story is very typical and so are the other characters'. I'm glad I'm a part of the movie - it serves as a visual document of what people in our era think and what they are experiencing."
However, the same factors caused Lo, a former film student of Hui's, to hesitate about taking up his role as activist Tai-chor. A participant in social campaigns since the rallies against the high-speed rail link, Lo feels exposed having to play a character whose life so resembles his own and understands only too well the problems that have Tai-chor perplexed.
"It's almost like I'm digging from my most private thoughts and, worse still, the plights of people around me and showing them to the world. The references are not limited to my own experiences," Lo says.
"Lately, I have also felt lost about what the future holds for social movements, and so has Tai-chor, who took to learning bamboo craft to get away from his problems."
But for Hui, the almost uncanny parallels between her script, which had Tai-chor taking up bamboo craft, and the enormous help that scaffolding workers had given during the sit-ins, were a sign that she simply had to complete the movie even though it has been much harder going than with her previous films such as Dead Slowly (2009) and Keening Woman (2013).
Fellow filmmaker Mak, who has taken on the producer role for the project, says their promotion of Pseudo Secular is also part of their effort to raise awareness about independent movies.
"It affects the local movie scene and the public's concept of cinema. Since the '90s, Hong Kong cinema has been dominated by comedy, romance, action movies and little else. It's not that there is nothing else, but there's little support to those who try to offer another genre. The audience is not given the option to watch alternative work on the silver screen," says 30-year-old Mak.
"Many people in mainstream media don't think they have bargaining power or are able to make a difference, even if it's something they find worthwhile. When I tell them about this campaign, they say, 'It's a great effort, good luck!' and then ask, 'So what celebrities do you have for your next movie?'
"They care only about what they think the public is interested in: gossip, relationships between celebrities, and whether you give them the scoop on a scandal.
"With this [crowdfunding] campaign, we hope people will treat it as a collective effort to pre-purchase tickets for a movie they find meaningful."