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In Blue Island, a Documentary Destined Never to be Shown in Hong Kong, Ex-protesters Recreate City’s History

Still shots from Blue Island. Photo: Supplied.
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Peter Lee | Hong Kong Free Press

Chan Tse-woon’s documentary Blue Island employs people involved in the 2019 protests as actors to bring three historical turning points to life.

For the second year in a row, a Hong Kong documentary has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at Taiwan’s upcoming Golden Horse Awards. And just like last year’s Revolution of Our TimesBlue Island has never been publicly screened on home soil.

Blue Island‘s director Chan Tse-woon did not bother to submit his 97-minute film to Hong Kong’s Film Censorship Authority, whose approval is necessary for any public screenings in the city.

“We cannot denounce those as cowards who left. It also takes courage to flee.” Chan Hak-chi (Age 74, fled the Cultural Revolution in 1973) began to swim at dawn in the Victoria Harbour as a lifelong daily habit, regardless of the weather. Photo: Supplied.

Under a law passed in October last year, film censors must evaluate whether screening would be “contrary” to the interests of national security. The chief secretary was also empowered to revoke approvals on national security grounds.

“My box office won’t be particularly big anyway. Not many cinemas will be willing to screen my film, so why would I adjust my own creation in order to pander to film censorship?” the 35-year-old filmmaker asked. Over the past year, censors have requested changes to films, such as the removal of scenes or subtitles, to allow them to be screened in Hong Kong. Directors have rarely complied. 

Thus, in securing his creative freedom, Chan also doomed Blue Island to have zero distribution in the city. He told HKFP he hoped viewers would be willing to seek out “films that truly, truly reflect this era of Hong Kong.”

Young protesters, historic times

Blue Island is not a typical documentary. Chan adopted reenactments as his main storytelling method, weaving some footage of the 2019 protests in, too.

“The people won’t forget.” Kenneth Lam (Student representative in 1989) and his friends, all of who have experienced the Tiananmen Crackdown, mourn the victims for 30 years straight. Photo: Supplied.

The movie replicates three traumatic events in real people’s pasts that were linked to turning points in Hong Kong’s history. In one, a man is jailed for 18 months for sedition after criticizing the British colonial government during the 1967 riots. In another, a couple risks their lives to swim from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to escape China’s Cultural Revolution. The third sees a Hong Kong student representative witness the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Young participants in the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest were invited to relive these historical moments. “None of them are professional actors, so their acting was very poor,” Chan said.

But the filmmaker said what they had faced in 2019 added another dimension to the events of the past. “Stories of the 1967 riots are represented by a young person who faces charges of rioting today… and a localist young man acts as a supporter of what we call ‘democratic unification’,” Chan said, referring to someone who supported Hong Kong’s Handover to China who hoped that the city would become democratic. 

“These actors are not just acting: they are expressing their own selves,” Chan added.

Trust the audience

Chan’s directing constantly reminds his audience that Blue Island is not meant to be a perfectly accurate replication of the past. The film often cuts to behind-the-scene footage of reenactment scenes.

In one, the man who escaped the Cultural Revolution refutes Chan’s depiction of the event. “People back then weren’t like this,” the viewers are told. 

However, Chan said his film reflects how the current generation of Hongkongers views the city’s history, as well as their own experiences of 2019. 

“In 30 years, how will we continue to face what happened in 2019? ” Chan asked. “What kind of person do I want to be, or want to avoid becoming?” 

Compared with his previous work, Chan said his latest documentary places “a lot more trust” in the audience, as he is no longer trying to convey a particular message or emotion and viewers are free to form their own understanding of the film.

“My biggest happiness was that… Hongkongers in fact can have a lot of discussions after watching the movie,” Chan said. “It does not matter if they criticize it, praise it or question the historical views in the film, or the form [in which they are presented].”

An independent path

With Blue Island, Chan had two goals: to retain creative freedom and to make enough money to make the movie a reality.

Chan said he and the film’s producer explored a number of ways to raise funds, including pitching their project at 14 international meetings. 

“Some directors said… Hong Kong filmmakers should copy our counterparts in Iran and raise funds overseas while continuing to create within the territory, even with strong political pressure and zero local distribution,” Chan added.

Filmmakers in Southeast Asia could also be their teachers, Chan said. Although their film industries are less developed than Hong Kong’s, they have been using foreign film festivals to accumulate resources and connect with international producers.

In the past, Chan said, one investor in Hong Kong could be enough to fund an entire movie. “[But] if you choose the indie path… the process would be much longer,” he said. 

“It might take a few years or more, but it is not impossible.” 

‘Blue Island’

When making the documentary, Chan realized that everyone in it had deliberated on what “Hong Kong” meant to them, or what would most benefit the city.

“Hongkongers have never had the chance to determine our own fate,” he said. “We imagined what would be good for Hong Kong, but it would never be achievable.”

A still shot from Blue Island. Photo: Supplied.

“It was one of the reasons why this film was named Blue Island.”

While the color blue is linked to depression and sadness, it also represents calmness and serenity.

Chan said someone had challenged him, saying that Blue Island felt too calm and distant as a documentary to relate to what happened in Hong Kong in 2019. 

But the director said, “being calm doesn’t mean you don’t love this place.” Chan said he had learned that from a mother of an American friend. 

“Still waters run deep,” she told the independent filmmaker.

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