Film review: Christopher Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy, inspired by Occupy protests, is more whimsical than political
Film based around the 2014 Occupy protests in Hong Kong is uneven, its mix of documentary and fictional elements intriguing but its free-form style sometimes awkward
In the weeks after Christopher Doyle’s January 7 announcement that he was using the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to finance a 90-minute feature inspired by 2014’s "umbrella movement" protests in Hong Kong, the Australian-born, Hong Kong-based filmmaker attracted much applause online – as well as 1,021 people to pledge a total of US$124,126 to realise the project.
Though Doyle is renowned as a cinematographer for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and a host of other prominent auteurs, it’s unclear how many of those backers were craving a follow-up to Doyle’s own directorial efforts, Away With Words (1999) and Warsaw Dark (2008), both incoherent dramas now largely consigned to obscurity.
Doyle has a chance to redeem himself as his crowd-funded passion project rides its Occupy connections and goes on limited release in Hong Kong on September 28, precisely a year after police used tear gas on students and provoked the start of the Occupy protests.
The film received its world premiere on September 12 at a sold-out screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous comprises three segments that respectively give “real voices” to a different generation of the Hong Kong population: “preschooled children”, “preoccupied youth” and “preposterous senior citizens”. Though never explicitly stated, Doyle obviously believes this capacity to dream to be tangential to the city’s quest for democracy.
The first part, “Preschooled”, was originally titled Hong Kong 2014: Education for All; it was commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and premiered at its March 2014 edition as a self-contained short.
Partly revolving around a little girl (Lip Ching-man) who prays to every god there is for harmony in her family, this segment is the most emotionally engaging of the trio.
In it, the concerns of elementary school children are spelled out in voiceover narration that accompanies sequences of them quietly going about their everyday life.
From the indignant feeling of being bullied to the sorrow of having a pair of absent parents, this short film listens intently to its young participants – and might even remind a few viewers of the innocent musings in Wings of Desire.
“Preoccupied” then turns to observe the city’s creatives during last year's protests. With subjects that range from an illustrator who documented the Admiralty encampment (Connie Yuen) to a worker at a pop-up farm in that area (South Ho, in fact a visual artist who never worked that farm), this part is less political than it is gently approving of the idiosyncratic pursuits of artist-activists.
“Preposterous” is, by comparison, the weakest link in the trilogy. By showing fictional speed-dating events for embarrassed senior citizens but giving little attention to their inner thoughts, this final part comes bewilderingly close to mocking its elderly participants. Things then get even more fantastical in its coda, when unrelated characters gather at the seaside to ponder their future together.
By staging fictive scenes with its documentary subjects and playing snippets from their actual interviews on the soundtrack, the film most intrigues when it stretches its self-professed “documentary” genre to breaking point. Despite his typically proficient cinematography, however, Doyle’s free-form, experimental film occasionally plays like an amateur drama scattered with awkward performances.
A sometimes lyrical, often silly slice of contemporary life in this city, Hong Kong Trilogy is further diluted by the flimsy dramatisation of its characters: a beatbox-loving young man’s (Kevin Lau) crush on a beautiful schoolteacher is dull and cringe-worthy, while real-life English teacher Kevin Sherlock’s (Away With Words) return as a hard-drinking expat supplies the film’s goofball antics but adds little else.
Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous goes on limited release in Hong Kong from September 28