For this ambitious blend of documentary and fictional filmmaking, Christopher Doyle spent a year interviewing real-life residents of Hong Kong, recording their personal stories, which became the basis for his film. The result is a free-flowing, often unpredictable portrait, for which he cast his interview subjects instead of actors.
What makes Hong Kong Trilogy work so well is the sense of humanity Doyle brings to the material. He finds something in each generation portrayed worth admiring, whether that’s the potential for empathy exhibited by the children, the passion to effect change embodied by young adults, or the wisdom and quiet dignity of his seniors. There isn’t much in the way of plot threads. For the most part, what maintains our interest is the constantly-shifting points of view and locations. While the first segment largely hovers around an elementary school, the film finds time to explore all corners of its titular city.
In “Preschooled Children,” we get inside the minds of youths whose nicknames often describe them literally: “Little Red Cap,” for example, wears such an accessory; “Pet Shop Boy” runs a side business selling homemade “fake” pets. Hearing their thoughts out loud, their main concerns include their loved ones and schoolwork. Indeed, it would seem as if academics take up nearly all their time, and that’s something Doyle seems acutely sensitive to. Nearly all scenes take place outside of class as his subjects steal what leisure moments they can—the action frequently returns to a rec room with a ping-pong table—or in the case of Pet Shop Boy, to a secret zoo outing.
The second chapter, “Preoccupied Youth,” focuses on the next generation up and revolves around rebellion of a larger scale, specifically, the real-life Umbrella Movement, which grew out of pro-democracy protests that took place in 2014. The movement culminated in massive groups of young idealists mobilizing to shut down a major thoroughfare. After the protestors build a sprawling tent city in the middle of the highway, two activists take center stage: Thierry, a feng shui master, and a graphic artist named Connie, who is constantly sketching what’s around her.
Other members of the movement include Thierry’s father, who owns a performance space in which various musicians and poets hang out and cross-pollinate. Since it’s an unlicensed bar, it isn’t long before police crackdown on them, and it’s at this point that the narrative starts pulling in different directions. We also meet an innovator who pushes a cart with built-in shelves in which he grows wheatgrass; an elderly gentleman who plucks paper recycling; and a beer-obsessed expatriate who steals back the very alcohol the cops seize.
At a certain point, the narrative, such as it is, overlaps with that of Vodka Wong, a spoiled and obese young boy who first appears in “Preschooled Children.” He gets busted for littering and brought to the police station, which happens to be next-door to a second location owned by the performance space’s proprietors.
Here the film’s already loose storyline is at its most anarchic, with the expatriate, in a seemingly inebriated state, nearly assaulting a police officer in a bizarre encounter. Yet despite insisting on it, he cannot get himself arrested, and meanwhile, a small child is simultaneously imprisoned for the most miniscule of offenses, littering. It’s a puzzling sequence, different in tone from much of what occurs around it. Perhaps Doyle intended it to reflect how topsy-turvy Hong Kong felt during the 80-day period during which the tent city stood, when ordinary people thumbed their noses at the Chinese authorities, proving they were the ones with the power.
“Preposterous Seniors” revolves around members of the oldest generation, who take part in a daylong bus tour that includes speed-dating. Their personal reflections are often poignant, although the segment’s tone is frequently lighthearted. The actual speed-dating event is backed to what sounds like Kansas City jazz, making the scene reminiscent of a Woody Allen comedy.
This chapter is also where Doyle contrasts his three generations most directly. An older woman, who volunteers as a torch singer and entertainer on the bus, tries to sing some traditional ballads to a group of schoolchildren. The latter will have none of it, loudly complaining until she stops. There is also the notable presence of Beat Box and Selene, whom we have seen many times already as an adult couple in “Preschooled Children.” He reappears in “Preoccupied Adults,” seemingly honing his craft alongside other musicians, albeit with no mention of Selene.
“Preposterous Seniors” then journeys back to the very beginning of their relationship. It’s a daring and unexpected choice, but one that allows for the juxtaposition of different generations’ experiences of love and romance. To hear the seniors describe them, love and marriage were often made difficult by factors such as war or having to go far away to find economic opportunities. By comparison, the young people have it easier in some ways, although it’s clear that Beat Box, Selene, and others of their age group face different challenges.
Doyle is, of course, no stranger to Hong Kong, having photographed it for years as Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer. However, the version he gives us here is very different, as he trades in neon-lit streets and grimy underground malls for spaces in which drab gray concrete meets splashes of color.
In addition, unlike Wong classics, such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Hong Kong Trilogy is more down-to-earth, concerned about ordinary men, women, and children trying to find their way in contemporary times. Casting the actual interviewees to play themselves works to great effect; it removes the distraction of trying to reconcile an actor as an “average” activist, beatboxer, or child. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the environment surrounding them; a diverse, intergenerational setting where folks rub elbows and largely get along—a hopeful portrait of a unique city.