Blue Island begins with a brief sequence set in 1973. A man and woman trek through the mountains, sleep until it gets dark, then make their way into the open water, tied together by a rope. After a brief but impressive evocation of the difficulty of the swim, in which point-of-view shots make the camera — and thus the characters — seem on the verge of sinking, we see a distant light on an opposite shore, and then a match cut to a contemporary daytime scene in Hong Kong.
With its precise lighting and clear wordless storytelling, one would be forgiven for thinking based on this opening that Chan Tze-woon has made a fiction film. But that surprising transition reveals his talents are as much intellectual as they are visual. Blue Island is not interested in simplistic comparisons between 1970s China and contemporary Hong Kong. It instead offers a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the links between disparate movements, and invites the viewer to consider both the usefulness and limitations of such historical analogy.
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In the present, student activists Anson Sham and Siu Yang, who played the pair in the opening sequence, watch Chan Hak-chi perform his own reenactment of the end of his and his wife’s fateful 1973 swim from China to Hong Kong. Sham intones, “In the face of injustice, he chose to leave because he could not fight it.” But the equivalence between past and present is quickly disarmed, as Yang responds, “Hong Kong is different, things are not that bad,” before asserting that those who chose to flee rather than fight were courageous, not cowardly.
Blue Island continues to place the Hong Kong protests of 2019/2020 in conversation with the activism of prior generations, both literally and through its construction. Chan stages scenes in which the young activists act alongside or play their ancestors. These sequences are revealing, as Chan keeps the camera rolling long enough for us to see members of the older generation “correct” the script; during one dramatization of a Communist Party meeting, Chan Hak-chi notes that admiration and praise for Chairman Mao was much less fervent in reality. The film also expands its scope to include the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the 1966-67 Hong Kong anticolonial protests. Each additional episode provides more regional context and indicates the role of historical contingency in these interconnected events.
We also see footage of present-day protests and dramatizations of ongoing trials. During the latter, as when his collaborators critique his dramatizations of the past, Chan allows his subjects agency. We watch them transform mentally and physically as they prepare for their roles, and listen as they discuss their political beliefs and backgrounds. Blue Island is not only teaching the audience, but inviting its active participation in ways that raise questions rather than shepherding them toward the satisfaction of easy answers.
Blue Island opens in select theaters July 29.