Ordinary Heroes: Made in Hong Kong − An introduction

Two facts: one about movies, one about the world. Since the middle of the twentieth century, cinema is a key part of the lifeblood of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is being shaken to its roots by a political and social upheaval that is calling into question the very existence of what makes Hong Kong unique.

Written by Shelly Kraicer

Hong Kong has been, until recently, described by both its former British colonial rulers and its current masters in the People’s Republic of China as an essentially apolitical city. A city with no politics, no particular stake in ideological struggle: it’s just about economics. A city in thrall to capital, that has manufactured and transported goods and managed capital more efficiently than anywhere else in the world. That is of course a highly ideologically charged assertion: to say a society has no politics is clearly to enter into an ideological debate about where those politics are located, and whose interests are served by their suppression.

As one of the primary vehicles for the foundation, development and expression of Hong Kong’s special, complex modern (and late-modern or let’s call it even post-modern) identities, Hong Kong cinema is uniquely valuable as an art form and an industrial practice that can teach us what the city thinks, and allow us to experience how it feels. Through Hong Kong’s past cinematic masterpieces, we can get a series of snapshots of the social tensions and political rifts that define Hong Kong: vast disparities between rich and poor; an extreme level of youth alienation, state-police power which shares a violent underpinning with its mirror image, the criminal underworld; and a fraught and complex unequal relationship with mainland China that is always under negotiation, in extreme tension.

This spotlight proposes to examine Hong Kong through its cinema, past and present. Its thesis is that since Hong Kong is always and intensely political, its most characteristic, eloquent films are, naturally, just as intensely political. Reading Hong Kong cinema through its history of social and ideological struggle, through the drama of Hong Kong’s social movements, can illuminate the origins and persistent nature of the tensions that are wracking Hong Kong today.

  • Still: Age of Valiant

The current political and social turmoil in Hong Kong has provoked and inspired the city’s independent filmmakers as never before. This period starts with the Umbrella Movement of 2014, and is continuing at the time of writing through the current massive peaceful and sometimes alarmingly not-so-peaceful popular resistance to police power and protest against government policies on the city’s streets. This conjunction of state/police power is seen by the vast majority of Hong Kongers as fundamentally threatening to their distinctive way of life, especially to the political freedoms and autonomy that underpinned it. These political rights were believed to have been guaranteed by the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s de facto constitution) at least until 2047, 50 years after the return of Hong Kong to PRC in 1997.

Out of the present turmoil have emerged vibrant, engaged voices producing music videos, fiction shorts, animated agitprop, and reflective experimental pieces. And Hong Kong’s intrepid and creative documentary filmmakers are throwing themselves into the turmoil, recording and preserving the experiences of Hong Kongers ‘on the frontlines’ and behind, and transforming the alarming urban chaos we see regularly, for the past six months on our television and computer screens, into cinematised calls for understanding and political action, archives for the future, and agonisingly immersive, politically inspiring, genuinely transformative art.

Special thanks to: Li Cheuk-to.

Photo in header: Still: Age of Valiant