Sitting somewhere between fiction and documentary, Hong Kong Trilogy is a fascinating look at the vicissitudes of the city’s sociopolitical atmosphere. In three movements – ‘Preschooled’, ‘Preoccupied’, and ‘Preposterous’ – the film riffs on three different generations, and their interaction with Hong Kong at the time when the city was making international headlines with the rise of the Umbrella Movement. From the start of the work it’s clear there’s little distance between the stories on screen and reality, but enough to distinguish the work from simply being a documentary. It takes as its subject an array of emotional, political, and philosophical ideas and emotions at a crossroads; expressed through a series of impressionistic tales. Although Christopher Doyle directs and serves as the cinematographer for the film, the degree of collaboration involved is more than evident throughout – with Ken Hui and Jenny Suen’s presence both as producers of the film and younger citizens of Hong Kong invaluable to the final product.1
The first segment, ‘Preschooled’ concerns itself with dissecting the innocence of youth in Hong Kong, as well as examining the institutions and social landscapes that form the defining structures of the city for them. We’re first introduced to a slow narrative that follows a small group of children as they walk through the area around their elementary school. Thankfully, Hong Kong Trilogy doesn’t try to make three separate shorts that sit in isolation from each other – for instance, we’re introduced to older characters in this first segment – instead it allows them to blend in with one another, forming a more complete portrait of Hong Kong, and those who live there.
Doyle’s presence as the cinematographer for the work is clear from the opening shots. His trademark nuanced approach to depth of frame, and his oscillation between focusing on figures in the foreground and others in distant background, give the work a subtle complexity amidst minimalist scenes and muted colours on screen. The combination of energetic handheld camera shots alongside contemplative and overwhelming tripod-shot scenes also contribute to both the contemporaneity of the work, whilst giving a pace to its reflections. The use of colour rounds out most of these shots with familiar shades and landscapes, in strong colour grading with an overall colour spectrum sitting in muted harmony – blues, greys, and shades that reflect the image of Hong Kong Doyle’s film characterises throughout: hopeful, yet far from carefree.
‘Preoccupied’ – a more obvious play on words – gives the film its main political impetus for being made; as a commentary on the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Doyle narratives the protest and uses the visually astounding, umbrella-adorned location to create some magnificent shots. It’s clear the segment wants to humanise the protests, but more importantly, it contextualises it. Introducing how “they shut the city down, to give us some space to think” Doyle’s piece clearly declares itself as a film with a message, at times almost a visually-driven polemic. At the same time, though, i’s mode of criticism embraces a strange degree of pacifism; focusing a lot more on how joyful everyone involved in the protest is, how unique they are, with little attention focused on the actual reasoning behind the movement itself – though there is a broader philosophical justification in the film’s final segment. A soundscape of contemporary jazz featuring everything from piano to kazoos adds to the relaxed and patient vibe of the images of the occupation. Even these musical decisions are integral to the efforts of the documentary to shift the perception of the Umbrella Movement away from the media characterisations within Hong Kong; as the guiding dictum for making the film posited, this is a film for the people of Hong Kong above all else.
There are scenes in the film that feel very much in line with Doyle’s almost surreal approach to directing in the past.2 His sense of spontaneity, pacing, and approach to shooting is at home in the final section – ‘Preposterous’ – as he follows a group of seniors speed dating on a bus; gradually reintroducing characters from the first two segments. The Hong Kong Trilogy reveals itself to be a work about space; what it means to occupy it, to shoot within it, and to exist amongst it. The relationship between ‘occupying’ physical space and being ‘metaphysically and mentally preoccupied’ by life is a constant focus for Doyle’s film – enforced in well-constructed scenes, where the older citizens shuffle off the bus and Doyle’s camera lingers onto the youth from the first segment, as they shuffle onto the bus.
Doyle has described the effort as “a film about Hong Kong and Hong Kong people, not a breaking news report.” Hong Kong Trilogy has its flaws. It often feels excessively light and gets so wrapped-up in this broad idea of Hong Kong identity that it never specifically conveys it. All in all, though, Hong Kong Trilogy paints a poignant and unique portrait of the people and stories of Hong Kong, succeeding more in a limited range than as an all-encompassing ode to the city.