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Politics & Security

‘Blue Island’: Film Reveals Hong Kongers Seeking Their Identity

An exploration of Hong Kong’s identity in relation to individual freedom told through the eyes of those who lived through the events of recent decades.

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Hong Kong’s political landscape has continued to deteriorate in light of ongoing retaliation from its mainland counterparts following a series of pro-democracy protests in 2019. 

Many documentary filmmakers have experienced the threat of government retaliation while attempting to tell these stories from a non-governmental perspective. Indeed, when it comes to freedom of expression, Hong Kong journalists and documentary filmmakers have been scrutinized at the same level. 

Which is to say, it is not easy to film Hong Kong in this era. 

However, one noteworthy example that took on the challenge is the Hong Kong/Japan co-production Blue Island, directed by Chan Tze-Woon, which will be released in Japan on July 16.

Director Chan Tze-Woon at Euro Space Theater, Tokyo. June 24 (Photo by Shaun Fernando)

The film was produced by some of today’s brave Hong Kong filmmakers with crowdfunding support in Japan and Hong Kong. In Japan, approximately 640 people supported the film, covering part of the production costs.

The theme centers on three real-life people who experienced events that shook the world. 

Featured in the film are stories from immigrants who fled to Hong Kong during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), students who participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and activists involved in the 2019 democracy movement.

The drama recreates the past while conveying the now elderly residents’ perceptions of the large-scale protests of 2019 and how they view the current sense of stagnation. Students and young people involved in the 2019 Hong Kong protests play roles in the drama segments.

The film received the top prize at Hot Docs 2022, the largest documentary film festival in North America, and won three awards at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival in May, including the Audience Award.

The Story of All Those Seeking Freedom

Two Hong Kong-based producers are behind the film: Peter Yam of 2016 Yellowing, and Andrew Choi of 2015 Ten Years. Participating with them as co-producers from Japan are Sanshiro Kobayashi, President of UZUMASA, Inc., and lawyer and producer Izutaro Managi.

Following the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, Director Chan realized that most people around the world do not quite understand Hong Kong’s current situation. Therefore, he created the storyline of Blue Island by combining the experiences of three generations, looking at the past and present of Hong Kong, to make the world think about the future of the region and the identity of its people.

“This film is about a generation that has contemplated Hong Kong and its people’s identity but has been disillusioned by its inability to shape the future of the city. I believe this disillusionment is the universal chain that holds us all together,” the director Chan explained.

Film Censorship Laws

The Hong Kong government passed a film censorship bill in October 2021, which prohibits the screening of films that may encourage anti-government activities.

A film’s license will be revoked, the law says if it is deemed harmful by the authorities. Violators could face prison sentences of up to three years. Several film experts and industry officials have said that the law will destroy the Hong Kong film industry.

In the case of Blue Island, however, the filmmakers were able to complete production without any major issues since it was partly funded in 2017. According to Chan, the government did not exert any pressure on them while they were making it.

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The only unfortunate thing, Chan said, is that this film cannot be screened in his home country, Hong Kong.

Blue Island will be released in Japan on July 16, following the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland on July 1.

Xi Jinping has announced that he will make a visit to Hong Kong on July 1, the anniversary date of the reversion from British governance. Asked what he thought about the Chinese president’s upcoming visit, Chan said: “It used to be a day when the whole nation celebrated together, but not anymore. And I do not consider the visit as a big deal.”

A Hybrid Format

Blue Island recreates scenes from 1966’s Cultural Revolution, depicting refugees who were attempting to escape the Cultural Revolution.

Rather than watching a video of the seniors talking about their memories of the events, Chan said he thought it would be better conveyed if it were actually performed.

A memory cannot always be expressed easily by reenacting scenes. “Initially, we didn’t intend to go this route, but ended up in a hybrid format” Chan said.

By having current activists act out past events, and then follow up on the activist’s reactions afterward, Chan brings an emotional nuance to the narrative that speaks volumes about the film’s purpose. 

It highlights how critical identity is to these protests, and how Hong Kong has always been at odds with its own independence.

When the film was screened at the Hot Docs Festival, there were many Hong Kongers living in North America who came to see it.

According to Chan, the Hong Kong audience and the Canadian members of the jury may have seen the film differently, communicating their messages in different ways. “However, to reach as many people as possible, we hope to screen the Blue Island at North American mini-theaters and European film festivals in the future,” he says.

Author: Shaun Fernando

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