A very special screening of the acclaimed 2022 documentary Blue Island by Chan Tze Woon took place on 27th October, co-hosted by CREAM, the MA Film, TV and Moving Image, and the French Institute. The well-attended screening at the Ciné Lumière was organised by CREAM’s Ozlem Koksal and Kit Hung, and a lively post screening discussion with the director followed. Dr Koksal reports on the rich Q&A discussion she moderated.
Blue Island (2022) is Chan’s second feature length documentary, the first being Yellowing (2016). Both films draw inspiration from the current status of Hong Kong and the protests that started on the island in 2014. Blue Island is an ambitious, moving, and structurally complicated film, weaving various narrative devices and temporalities together. The documentary brings together activists and ex-activists in Hong Kong from different generations, using re-enactments to bond the young protestors in the present with those who had been involved in rebellion in their youth, albeit for different reasons. The film includes references to significant historical periods from British colonial rule in Hong Kong, to the Tiananmen massacre, and to the Cultural Revolution, alongside the present moment. Chan uses re-enactments, archival footage, as well as interviews, with constant references to contemporary Hong Kong and the more recent protests in 2019 against the recently amended extradition law.
Given the complicated structure of the film, which goes back and forth between fictional and documentary scenes, I begun by asking Chan about his use of re-enactments. He smiled, saying ‘it wasn’t always planned like this”. Chan spoke of the period after the clamp down of the protests from 2014, referring to it as a “low period” where it became more and more difficult to express dissent and/or be critical. During this “low period” he wanted to make a film about Hong Kong while navigating the limitations. His initial idea was to make a film about the history of Hong Kong from Hong Kongers’ perspective, and that is when Chan started thinking about using re-enactments. However, during the process of interviews for the casting, he noticed many of the young people he was interviewing were, in one way or another, involved in the current protests. Chan recalled that it was then that he started thinking that conversations between generations, conversations about the past and the present of Hong Kong, should also be included in the film.
Blue Island is formally highly self-reflexive, with many scenes including the director and/or the crew giving instructions to actors or being captured on camera while filming scenes. Chan talked about his desire to make films that allow for critical engagement, inviting his audiences to think about what is being presented rather than trying to convince them of his own convictions. The complex structure, and the combination of narrative devices, not only help him to create a more pensive audience but also speak to the nature of memory, a very pertinent issue in the film. Chan often blurs the distinction between the fictionalised parts of the film and the documentary footage, which then enables him to capture something else in the process, something that speaks to the history of Hong Kong and the memories of Hong Kongers.
When asked about whether he had doubts or worries about the decision to juxtapose events that might be considered very different, Chan responded by saying he has had a variety of responses. He added that his aim was to look at Hong Kong’s history and how that specific history has affected, and continues to affect, the people of Hong Kong, their present circumstances and their future. During the Q&A, he thoughtfully reflected on how he had to think about making a film that would communicate to very different audiences, reconciling audiences with knowledge and experience of Hong Kong and audiences with an interest in but limited knowledge of the history of Hong Kong.
The audience at the French Institute screening had many interesting comments and questions for Chan, enabling him to speak on topics ranging from his experience as a Hong Konger to how Hong Kong diaspora received the film in various parts of the world. Unfortunately, Blue Island has not been screened in Hong Kong due to the current political situation and the censorship practices.
Kit Hung’s extended dialogue with Chan Tze Woon will be published in the forthcoming issue of NANG cinema magazine, issue 10 ‘Futures,’ guest edited by May Adadol Ingawanij.