Filmmaker Derek Chiu mines a controversial slice of Hong Kong history for a sadly current and universal drama about political resistance and its personal toll.
A Grand Prix win at the prestigious Osaka Asian Film Festival and a rousing reception at Udine may not be enough to win director Derek Chiu’s controversial No. 1 Chung Ying Street much of an audience at home in Hong Kong, thanks in large part to skittish exhibitors who’ve lost their taste for risk. That doesn’t take into account an international film festival that didn’t screen the film despite the fact it was ready for opening day, opting instead for a middling generational drama and character mystery — both Taiwanese.
And that’s a shame, because despite a miniscule budget (that kept shrinking), Chiu has turned in an eerily relevant drama about political resistance, its personal consequences, the tendency for the powers that be to crush dissent at every opportunity rather than address its roots and Hong Kong’s eternal quest for self-determination, one that will resonate in many, many corners of the globe right now.
Like similarly minded predecessor Ten Years, and documentaries Vanished Archives and Lost in the Fumes, the film could disappear at the behest of nervous theaters or simply get smothered by superheroes in Hong Kong’s summer movie season, but in its early release (something the other films never got), No. 1 Chung Ying Street is likely to generate strong business. Given the political climate around the world, Chung Ying is also assured a long, healthy festival run. Limited art house release overseas and in parts of Asia isn’t out of the question either, even if the finer details are lost on foreign audiences. A China release is obviously a write-off.
A great deal of the brouhaha surrounding No. 1 Chung Ying Street stems from the fear that Chiu and co-writer Tse Ngo-Sheung may have crafted a fiery, brimstoney, agitating piece at a time when Hong Kong is walking on sociopolitical eggshells. Quite the contrary, Chung Ying is a more contemplative film, something of a love letter to the city, focused on the people at the heart of two political events, the 1967 Leftist/anti-colonial labor riots (which Hong Kong prefers not to talk about, thanks) and the 2014 Umbrella Movement (ditto). Chiu’s budget constraints (roughly $400,000) actually work in his favor, with cinematographer Lai Yat-Nam’s gorgeous, blue-tinged black-and-white images simultaneously masking financial shortfalls and visually signaling the shifting black and white perceptions onscreen. Dispensing with blustery riot sequences keeps the focus on the characters at the heart of the story as they wrestle with the how and why of commitment to political action.
In May 1967, border village Sha Tau Kok students Lai-Wah (Malaysian actress Fish Liew), Chun-Man (Ten Years’ Yau Hawk-Sau) and rich kid Chi-Ho (Lo Chun-Yip) get caught up in the mounting rage at Hong Kong’s British colonial government. Workers are feeling exploited and left-leaning activists are stoking the emotional connection to Mao, his Little Red Book and their “brothers” in the PRC. Chun-Man takes his father’s (Lo Wai-Luk) words to heart and joins the movement, much to the distress of Lai-Wah, who doesn’t understand the sudden activism, and Chi-Ho, who’s quite happy with his station. Also floating around the village is Wingkuen (Chan Kin-Long), recently escaped from the mainland and utterly baffled at the activists’ desire to better emulate China. Things come to a head one day on Chung Ying Street — literally “China England” Street — and the three’s actions change their lives forever.
Fifty years later, Wingkuen (now played by prominent Hong Kong artist Yeung Sau-Churk) is still in the village when young activist Sze-Wai (Liew again) is released from prison after a stint for some Umbrella Movement-related civil disobedience. Returning to Sha Tau Kok, she feebly reconnects with co-conspirator Yat-Long (Lo) and goes looking for her old boyfriend and third agitator, Yee-Hong (Yau). He’s avoiding everyone as he wallows in the failure of leaving his friends to get arrested and hiding out with Wingkuen. A sudden scheme to develop a shopping mall designed to attract mainland daytrippers (which recalls a 2009 protest over a high-speed rail station), and raze Wingkuen’s home and small farm reunites the three in protest and allows Yee-Hong to reconcile his past and present.
Chiu and Tse don’t need to work hard to draw parallels and unearth ironies in the film’s two distinct, yet remarkably similar, halves; the peripheral issues of police brutality, the schism with the motherland, and the disconnection and disinterest of the rich with regards to the 99% float to surface despite Chung Ying doing its best to transcend polemics. Chiu is more interested in consequences, in the death or jail that resulted from ’67’s actions, and the thoroughly modern results of dead ends (Sze-Wai can’t travel to the U.S. with Yat-Long as a convict) and resignation in ’19 than in ideology. The 1967 segment is the stronger one, as it benefits from young Wingkuen’s silent questioning and more social variation among the students. Love triangles are among the least exciting dramatic devices going, and part two would have done well to jettison it and put more work into Yee-Hong’s fight between his convictions and sense of guilt.
Ultimately, No. 1 Chung Ying Street’s greatest strength is its authenticity (some would say earnestness), which is most obvious in the uniformly strong cast, one that’s nicely balanced between veterans and pros from other arts disciplines and emerging performers, all clearly committed to Chiu’s cause. Liew is Malaysian and not subject to career blowblack, Yau is politically active and quite visible, Lo is an indie filmmaker in his own right with a penchant for socially minded material. Chiu (Comeuppance, a producer on Mad World) isn’t known for a particularly light touch, but here he lets his images and a clever narrative construction do the talking that’s getting harder every day.
Production company: Boundary Film Productions
Cast: Fish Liew, Yau Hawk-Sau, Lo Chun-Yip, Yeung Sau-Churk, Chan Kin-Long, Yvonne Lam, Lo Wai-Luk, Joe Cheung
Director: Derek Chiu
Screenwriter: Derek Chiu, Tse Ngo-Sheung
Producer: Derek Chiu
Executive producer: Raymond Young, Derek Chiu
Director of photography: Lai Yat-Nam
Production designer: Fok Tat-Wa
Costume designer: Kao Chia-Lun, Fok Tat-Wa
Editor: Angie Lam, Josie Tang
Music: The Interzone Collective
World sales: Day Day Creative Ltd.
No rating, 117 minutes