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Revolution of (all) time: The obsessed and ephemeral in ‘Blue Island’

Rarely do biopics transcend the lives they feature. They take care to progress linearly through the past, neatly immersing the viewer in the reality they proffer, with perhaps a voiceover or two from the present to tease at or foreshadow if they’re feeling particularly theatric. But for 憂鬱之島 (eng. “Blue Island”) director Chan Tze Woon, time and place are mere accessories — between frames, he jumps decades, from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to 2019 and back again, skirting across the harbor along the way. Documentary bleeds into dramatization, the past into the present, as the camera follows actors off set to dinners with the people they portray. And throughout the film, there’s a sense of growing dread: the potent anxiety of a city that feels it is damned. 

The film is anchored around three central storylines. Two student activists, Anson Sham and Siu Ying, re-enact the account of an older couple, Chan Hak-Chi and Git Hing, who once fled mainland China to Hong Kong along with tens of thousands of other citizens in 1973 in hopes of escaping the autocratic Cultural Revolution. Elsewhere, Keith Fong Chung-yin, a 2019 activist, converses with Kenneth Lam, learning how to play him in scenes featuring the 1989 demonstrations in support of the protesters in Tiananmen Square. And suspended between the two, situated within the confines of a darkened, damp cell, are Raymond Young, a once-deeply patriotic Hong Konger arrested for his promotion of the CCP under the British in 1967, and his 2019 counterpart, Kelvin Tam Kwan Long, locked in an intimate discussion of the merits of protest and the realities of prison. 

“Blue Island” begins rather innocuously, opening on a scene of Anson Sham and Siu Ying trekking through the woods, their faces tight and serious as they act out the older couple’s journey. As they take to the waves of Mirs Bay, ducking under its surface, the camera cuts to Chan Hak-Chi himself, swimming in the waters just off the shores of Hong Kong. Ostensibly, Chan returns us neatly to the past, to a small village listening to a man sing the praises of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. But just as we start to settle in again, the camera cuts to a close-up of the crowd and we see Anson and Chan Hak-Chi evaluating the faithfulness of the scene being produced (or, well, re-produced) at that very moment. Thus through a combination of dramatization, archival footage, video, and present-day interview, Chan has eschewed the timeless bubble created by most historical documentaries for its exact opposite: a space that is time-full, a space that keeps us on our toes. And just as we feel ourselves becoming lost in the wave of sensory information being displayed before us, there is his voice, monotonous, overarching, bringing his actors back to their realities on set with grounding questions such as “What is Hong Kong to you?” 

More clips. Clips of Chan Hak-Chi at the 2019 protests, hands clasped behind his back as he observes the procession, then videoes of the protestors pushing through barriers, being shot at by the military, chanting. Next, Lam, carefully cupping a candle at the present-day Tiananmen Square vigil, as he calls out the old 1989 chants for democracy. The jumps between times grow more frequent, the titles establishing the year the scenes are set in vanish. In some scenes, the actors play the roles of their predecessors, in the next, they answer as themselves. 

The result is pure disorientation, a sickening sense of vertigo. Time passes, in its own rambling way, but Hong Kong remains mired in its cycle of protests and violence, with no political change to show for it. And in that discrepancy, there arises the acute sense of helplessness that permeates the tone of the film.

In the cell, there is a moment of stillness. Young asks Tam: “We, the people of Hong Kong, across our 150-year history, have we ever been able to control our own fate? No, we have always been at the whim of fate.” 

Chillingly, as if in testament to that very statement, “Blue Island” concludes with a series of portraits featuring Hong Kongers of all ages and professions awaiting trial for their participation in the 2019 acts of civil disobedience. Some have their eyes downcast, their poses subdued. Others meet the camera with raised chins, defiant. It’s a sobering reminder to the viewer that with changes in governance such as the passing of the 2020 national security law and the 2022 ban of the Hong Kong Tiananmen Square vigil, the foreseeable future of Hong Kong has been sentenced to that same fate. 

And perhaps never again will a film have so many anonymous actors.

The disembodied voice of the director booms once more, “What is Hong Kong to you?” Hong Kong is every moment – 1973, 1989, 2014, 2019, the distant, fogged-up future – collapsed into a singularity, 150 years unto a 97-minute film. 

This showing of “Blue Island” was made possible through Duke Cinematic Arts’s Screen/Society. A list of upcoming screening events is available here on their webpage. All will take place in Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center Film Theater and are free and open to the public.   

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