Blue Island (Hong Kong/Japan/Taiwan, 2022) [CAAMFest 2022]

Since the region’s harrowing protests in 2019, Hong Kong’s tumultuous political landscape continues to erode in the face of ongoing retaliation from its mainland counterparts. Freedom of the press remains tenuous, and filmmakers are under the same level of scrutiny when it comes to any true freedoms of artistic expression. Despite this, documentary filmmakers have weathered the very real risks of government retaliations in creating films that aim to channel the truth. Notable examples from local filmmakers include When a City Rises (2021) and Revolution of Our Times (2021), with Chan Tze-woon’s Blue Island being the latest addition to these courageous efforts.

Created from a vestige of both fictional and non-fictional footage, the film is a creatively-charged examination of how Hong Kong’s identity in relation to personal freedoms has evolved over the preceding decades. This includes stories from immigrants who fled to Hong Kong in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China, students who were involved in the June 4th massacre, and activists engaged in the 2019 movement, many of whom are still awaiting trial for their involvement in the protests. Some of the young activists are asked to re-enact events from previous revolutions, forcing different generations of Hong Kongers to reflect on both their past and present predicaments.

As a film, Blue Island shines in its intricate structure and free-handed narration that certainly elevates its status as an innovative force in documentary storytelling. Chan’s decision to have current activists act out past events, and follow-up on their reactions following these exercises, brings an emotional toll to the narrative that speaks volume to the film’s raison d’être. It really helps to hone in on the crisis of identity that has underpinned these protests, and sheds light on the fact that Hong Kong has always been at odds with their own independence. Whether it be the suppression of being under British rule – particularly during its earlier years as an English colony – or the anchoring tyranny that has descended on Hong Kongers in recent years under Chinese rule, the concept of identify and independence have never been simple.

And although Blue Island’s main thesis might hinge on Hong Kong’s current political conundrums, it really delves into the region’s very complicated history in relation to being a harbour of independence. Kenneth Lam, one of the film’s subjects who participated in the 1989 massacre as a young activist, laments on the importance of being able to commemorate on such a historical event, all while reflecting on how that window of commemoration is coming to a close. And within the film itself, it’s clear that cinema and art might be a vessel that continues to preserve these important facets of history. This makes Chan’s utilization of re-enactments by young activists even more meaningful, and adds another layer of thoughtful narration.

Chan is also careful not to make his film, or the cinematic medium in general, some kind of saviour to the cause. Instead, he contemplates on how the medium is barely serving as a preservation of recent events, and punctuates the perils of such efforts through the film’s ending. Blue Island essentially ends with stilted shots of activists currently awaiting trial for their involvement in the 2019 protests, with a true sense of gloom looming over the uncertain future of Hong Kongers in general. If one were to ask whether films like this will ever get an official wide release locally, the answer would likely disappoint. But a film like Blue Island really epitomizes the power of cinema in preserving the truth, which is no small feat, and in the current realty of Hong Kong, a valiant victory.

Blue Island was shown at CAAMFest 2022.