Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary by Chinese-American director Nanfu Wang, opens with discreet footage of a bustling street, focused on various men whose identities are secondary to the threats they aim at Wang. They’re staring at her and harassing her, we’re told, because of her camera. This self-reflexive gesture isn’t exactly original in a documentary, but it’s structurally essential to the film. As a prelude, we’re reminded that the camera is a witness to a political narrative that demands blindness.
Wang’s film succeeds in its alternation between three primary subjects: Ye Haiyan, who is the titular activist “Hooligan Sparrow”, her attempts to repeal an amendment to China’s child prostitution laws with the help of human rights lawyer Wang Yu, and the production of the film itself. Where a dissident like Ai Weiwei has ridden the publicity wave of a renewed Western interest in contemporary Chinese art, Ye Haiyan remains relatively unknown outside China. Her domestic reputation soared in 2012, when she volunteered as a sex worker for two days, free of charge, drawing attention to the rarely-discussed conditions of roughly six million Chinese sex workers. Wang allocates just enough screentime to both spotlight Haiyan’s role as an activist and to contextualise China’s human rights activism more broadly. Even where Haiyan is absent, the film never stagnates—to see Wang simply operating the camera is gratifying; a gesture that asserts critical presence in the face of state-orchestrated odds.
In China, prior to 1997, sex with anyone aged below fourteen was classified as rape, consensual or not. While convicted rapists face life sentences or the death penalty, the child prostitution charge introduced in that year carries only a five to fifteen year sentence. If victims are between the ages of six to fourteen, perpetrators can reframe the facts to come under the solicitation offense. In 2013, the principal of Wanning Primary School, and a government official of Hainan province, evaded rape prosecutions by exploiting this very loophole. This is Wang’s starting point.
From here, the situation is a snowballing disaster of procedural and legislative defects. After staging a protest outside Wanning Primary School in Hainan, Wang and Haiyan’s attempts to address the loophole trigger further executive exploitation by various state bodies. The National Security Agency interviews Wang about the production of this film, later visiting her family hundreds of miles from her location in Hainan and demanding her whereabouts. But the NSA is physically absent, save for a brief, covertly-recorded audio clip. More imminent are the local police; reminders of perpetual surveillance and China’s trickle-down corruption. Despite their seeming ubiquity, Wang ensures that we never quite acclimatise to their onscreen presence. In a crowd, at a detention centre, outside an apartment—these blue-clad figures sustain the film’s tension by signifying the potential for violence.
But uniformed police violence rarely comes, highlighting the government’s frustrating preference for obliquely exerted force, too tenuous to warrant state accountability. The physical intimidation we see is primarily perpetrated by civilians or plainclothes policemen (it’s hard to tell), likely puppeteered by state bribes. Official police tactics are far less forthright: when Wang and Wang Yu arrive at Haiyan’s detention centre in Guangxi, with evidence to combat her unlawful detention, the supervising officer simply denies her presence on the premises. Upon her release from detention, a mob gathers outside her apartment. They yell provocations but she knows they’ve been hired and paid by the government. Police turn up at her home for reasons unrelated to her activism in Hainan, they say, but they’re not actors, and it shows. Halfway through their visit, Wang puts away her camera and dons a pair of glasses with a micro-camera embedded in the frame. The micro-camera footage seems to implicate us—an officer senses something askance, scrutinising and eventually breaking her glasses. His searching stare is uncanny, as though reaching across all temporal and spatial bounds and feeling thousands of unknown eyes on him, though it’s only Wang who sees him at the time.
The final third of the film is its most effective, depicting the meta-struggle of ensuring the film’s survival. Police have been tracking the movements of Wang and her “crew”—Wang’s colleague Huang, Haiyan, Haiyan’s boyfriend, and Yaxin—across China, as Wang awaits a US re-entry visa. It’s strangely dissonant to reconcile scenes of a terrified Wang, anxious about the future of her footage, with the realisation that our very viewing of the film is a testament to its survival. From here, the film circles back to the rape case in Hainan, where the perpetrators are convicted of rape, but receive reduced sentences. In fact, most of the concluding scenes echo earlier ones, either explaining or recontextualising key moments. While this could’ve come across as gimmicky, it feels natural in a film that stakes itself on questioning what is told, and what is seen. A quote from Huang ends the film: “when you are oppressed and defenceless, the only thing you can do is document the atrocities”. Perhaps with the addendum “in the hopes that someone will see them”, as we just have.