Chan Tze-Woon’s documentnary Blue Island is the kind of film that’s hard to describe, but easy to watch, by which I mean that this film makes perfect sense when you’re watching it, but it is so different from a standard issues-based documentary that it’s hard to explain how it actually works. So, before I try to describe it, I’ll just say this—if you’re interested in what’s going on in Hong Kong, or in how documentary filmmakers are pushing the envelope, this is a film that is well worth your while. It won the top prize at Hot Docs this year, so I’m not the only one that thinks it’s both a good and important film.
The immediate subject of Blue Island is the recent round of protests in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the 2019-20 Anti-Extradition Law protests. These contemporary actions are presented as part of a long history of not accepting what is given without question. In the past, such protests addressed matters like British colonialism (from 1843 to 1997, Hong Kong was essentially ruled by a governor appointed by Great Britain, and every one of those governors was a white man), while today they’re likely to demand greater democracy and human rights.
Blue Island weaves together past and present in Hong Kong, mixing contemporary documentary footage and staged re-enactments of past events to the point that the only conclusion you can draw is that the past is always present in this island nation. Screen cards provide extra historical context from time to time, but if you come to this film expecting a straightforward presentation of the issues, you’ll quickly become frustrated. Better to follow the emotional thread of the film, which is all the more heartbreaking for being so understated. The sight of one young person after another either already convicted of or awaiting trial on charges like “rioting” or “conspiring to subvert state power” is enough to break your heart all by itself.
There’s some fancy footwork going on behind the scenes in Blue Island, although you don’t have to catch all of it to get the point. Chan Hak-chi, now an elderly (but very fit) man living in Hong Kong, escaped from China with his wife Git Hing in 1973, during the Cultural Revolution. He swam to Hong Kong, which may explain why fitness still plays a key role in his approach to life. In the flashback episodes, Chan and Git are played by two protestors from the current era, Anson Sham Kwan-yin and Tin Siu-Ying. And in the present day, Sham and Tin discuss a scene in which Sham appears as Tin, and asks if people were as enthusiastic about the Great Leader as they were portrayed in the scene. Not so much, according to Chan.
Similarly, we see the real life Kenneth Lam, forced to flee from China to Hong Kong after taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests, and also a younger version of him as by Keith Fong Chung-yin, a present-day student leader and participant in the 2019 protests. And Raymond Young, who spent time in jail for participating in anti-British riots in 1967, is played by Kelvin Tam Kwan-long, a present-day activist.
Blue Island is a surprisingly calm film, considering the violence of some of the protests (or more accurately, the violence of the response to the protests), and the recurring cycle of hope and tragedy played out over and over again. It’s definitely a film to make you think, and brings a fresh perspective to the politics of a region that is both familiar and foreign to the Western world. | Sarah Boslaugh
Blue Island is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films, with a street date of Oct. 25. There are no extras on the disc.