Six Days in Hong Kong, Part 2

Part two of an essay about my visit to the 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival: The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.

It seems these days that Hong Kong people are yearning for Democracy. And so far, they are getting closer to it under Chinese rule than they ever did under the British. The people mobilized against the anti-sedition Article 23 last year and were successful in getting the government to back down. Beijing is still sore about it, though, calling Hong Kong people impertinent and disrespectful, a situation that recalls the British Parliament's repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 in the face of heavy American Colonial opposition -- and you know what that lead to! Taking a harder stance, Beijing announced that they will delay, further than 2007, popular elections for Hong Kong's Chief Executive. The announcement guarantees that the people will be taking to the streets once again this summer. But you know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I mean, less than forty years ago, Hong Kong people took to the streets in a much more violent fashion against the British Government in support of Communism. Make up your minds, people!

Meanwhile, a recent survey in the South China Morning Post reported that the Shanghainese aren't particularly interested in moving towards Democracy. At the moment, they'd rather be moving towards vast sums of money, and Shanghai is booming. The same is true everywhere in the World -- when the economy is up, why make a fuss about the government, except perhaps in the hope of cutting taxes?

But of course, Shanghai is not just a city of aggressive capitalists. There are all kinds of people there, just like any major city, and the documentary BURNING DREAMS reminded me of that nicely. BURNING DREAMS is the story of a small dance studio, its teachers, and its students, and their dedication to their art despite the fact that they are all third-rate talents. The head teacher, an elderly man by the name of Liang Yi, was known as the "Fred Astaire of Taiwan," despite the fact that he never took a dance lesson in his life. The other teacher is Yang Yang, an attractive woman who yearns to have a singing and dancing career but so far only plays at small, local gigs. Together, they teach their students how to dance to Rock and Roll. The students, all dedicated and passionate in their own ways, perform live for audiences on many occasions, frequently as backup dancers in their teacher's concerts. The film is shot in black and white and the outdoor, city scenes are incredibly beautiful, the camera capturing Shanghai as if was Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. But indoors scenes are so tightly framed as to be claustrophobic, many dance routines becoming a confusing jumble of legs and arms. The cinematographer also had a great interest in the spandex covered breasts and crotches of the teenage dancers, and with the choreography unclear all that jiggling just makes you start to feel like a perv.

If having dreams, and aspiring to reach them, is the lifeblood of BURNING DREAMS, then the absence of dreams forms the hollow core of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's BRIGHT FUTURE. A young man (Jo Odagiri) who always dreamed of a beautiful future, suddenly finds his dreams are empty, now. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is friends with another dysfunctional young man (Tadanobu Asano), who has a jellyfish as a pet. It's beautiful, and very challenging to take care of, but it also has a sting that can kill a grown man. He is trying to acclimate the jellyfish to live in freshwater, not just saltwater. When his friend winds up in jail, he agrees to continue the acclimatization process, and in the meanwhile, his friend's father takes him in to work in his shop. The glacial pace and thin storyline makes this effort one of Kurosawa's worst. The whole time I was thinking, "the jellyfish can't just be a metaphor for this young man's anger and promise, can it? Spend a lot of effort to take care of it, but get too close and he may kill?" Sadly, after the film finally ended, I browsed the promotional materials, which confirmed this silly and overly obvious premise. Perhaps, Kurosawa wanted to surprise fans of his work by suggesting an end-of-the-world theme, with the title of the film, and the dreamlessness of the protagonist, then deny the theme in the end. I wasn't surprised. I was just tired and hopeful that something interesting would happen.

Instead, a group of young punks that the protagonist hung out with and rabble roused with earlier in the film close out the picture by walking out in the street together, looking for some more trouble. It is an ending that raised some question among viewers and critics, who noted that all of them were wearing the same T-shirt, which bear the image of the Central American revolutionary Che Guevara. Could this be the Bright Future the title speaks of? A future as envisioned by Che Guevara? A socialist future? In an interview, Kurosawa denied the connection and said it was just something that kids these days are wearing, that's all.

I didn't think much of it until the following day, when a streetcar I was taking through Central was stopped by a massive anti-democracy protest. The pro-Democracy protesters claimed 20,000 people were there. A government counter says only 8,000. Either way, it was more than enough to bring our streetcar to a complete halt and the chance of resuming the trip unlikely in the extreme. I got out and waded through the pro-Democracy protesters. It was an extremely ordered, peaceful protest, dramatically different from the riots and looting that seem to accompany all the World Trade Organization anti-globalization protests these days. Many of the protesters carried balloons in the shape of Tung Chee-Wah's head, which they waved around like those giant foam hands waving in sports arenas. There was also a giant black hand, waving back and forth. I couldn't read the writing on the hand, but that it was symbolic of oppression of some kind seems obvious. The hand waved slowly back and forth. Behind the hand, standing on a small ladder perhaps, was a young man with a megaphone, leading the pro-democracy chants. Later I would discover that he is one of the organizers of the march, one of the most outspoken protesters, and familiar to everyone in Hong Kong who follows the protests with any regularity. I tried to get a good look at him, but the huge black hand kept swinging in my way. At last it moved aside, and there he was, megaphone in hand.

He was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt (right).

My first thought was, though my knowledge of Central American revolutionaries is admittedly a bit thin, Che Guevara doesn't strike me as an icon of pro-democracy. A comandante in Fidel Castro's revolutionary army, he helped overthrow one Cuban dictator to install another. His restless appetite for socialist revolution pitted him against the United States, the Marxist David against the Capitalist Goliath, and he eventually wound up dead in the jungles of Bolivia, the CIA trying to wash the blood from its hands like a departmental Lady MacBeth. Yes, Che Guevara was against Democracy, and fought the good fight against it to the best of his abilities, and when he died the masses swore they would never forget. In many ways he is the 60s version of Osama bin Laden. Perhaps after his death, people will wear Osama T-shirts. Scratch that, they already do. Iconography moves much more quickly these days than it did in the past.

My second thought, as I stood in front of our stopped streetcar, and protesters pass on either side, balloons waving, shouting at the top of their lungs, while the young man led them with his megaphone, was this: perhaps, this is the Bright Future that Kiyoshi Kurosawa was talking about.

[Originally published at the no longer extant site, HK Entertainment News in Review.]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on June 04, 2007.

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