“It was a faceless protest but now we can see the faces.”
Both of Chan Tze-woon’s two feature documentaries, Blue Island (2022) and Yellowing (2016), concern the pro-democracy protests that have been unfolding over recent years in Hong Kong, where Chan lives, and was born. Yellowing is immediate—a fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed from the frontlines of the 2014 large-scale civil occupation of the city that was dubbed the Umbrella Movement, foregrounding the direct perspectives of those involved, and showing events as they occur. By contrast, Blue Island is more contemplative, blending multiple techniques—including interviews, archive, re-enactment, and observational material—to create a searching portrait that looks backwards and forwards in time.
Freeform and associative, Blue Island is as much speculative fiction as it is historical biography. While ostensibly about the Hong Kong protests and situations that are geopolitically and culturally specific, the film, rather than educating or transmitting certain information, shows a greater interest in generating emotion and sharing multi-layered perspectives. Chan connects three older figures who were involved in actions during key junctures in Hong Kong’s history with young protesters, encouraging intergenerational dialogue and reflection. As the film moves between person and period, smoothly switching up style and approach, what emerges is a sense of malaise that is moving—in part because, despite all rational expectations, it is not devoid of hope or possibility.
Chan spoke via video-call from his home in Hong Kong, guiding me cheerfully through the heavy process of making his second feature.
MATT TURNER: When did you start this film and how did it change as you developed it? You worked on it for quite a long time, right?
CHAN TZE-WOON: I think it was almost five years from start to finish. I started in 2017, right after I completed Yellowing. It was between the Umbrella Movement and the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, so it was a very depressing time in Hong Kong. During the height of these protest movements, we were in the spotlight of the world, but in between no one cared so much about Hong Kong. At that time, it felt even more important to make a film.
In Yellowing, I followed a number of young protagonists, asking them a question: “Will you still believe in what you believe in now in 30 years’ time?” In 2017, I was asking myself the same question, which made me wonder if I could find someone from an older generation and ask them the same question, but the opposite way: “Do you still believe now in what you believed in 30 years ago?” I was thinking exploring the experiences of those from previous generations could help us to imagine our own futures, which was the beginning of Blue Island.
At that time, we didn’t anticipate the large movement that would emerge in 2019, so I was focusing instead on three parts of Hong Kong’s history.
Then, after 2019, I tried to engage with the current events more directly. I decided to have my young protagonists play the roles of people from the previous generations. After 2019, every Hong Konger was facing difficult times. Some were facing trial, some had lost their freedom, and some were experiencing trauma from the protests, or from deciding to leave Hong Kong. For me, this kind of difficulty actually mirrors the past because the older generations had very similar experiences. So when I brought them together using re-enactments, it became a bridge between now and then, but also a way of seeing how we can re-imagine our future.
After 2019, I had less desire to film the protests on the street—you can find so many documentaries that do that, or see this on the news every day. I wanted to find other ways to try to tell a story about the difficulties in Hong Kong today.
"With mobile phones everyone can make something timely; as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been thinking about how to make something timeless."
MT: I saw Yellowing a few years ago, and I was thinking about it again when watching Blue Island. In some ways, as you say, they ask similar questions, but Yellowing was more about being on the ground and capturing what was happening while this new film more ambitiously uses re-enactment techniques and fictional elements. I am interested to hear how your approach to filmmaking has changed.
CTW: With each film, I try to tell a story in a way that relates to the form of the protests. The Umbrella Movement followed ideas of civil disobedience, so in Yellowing everyone is showing their face. They are willing to bear the responsibility, even if they’re doing something illegal. At that moment, I thought it was important to try to tell the story of every individual in order to give a full picture of the occupation. In 2019, it was very different. Protesters were following the principle of “be water,” so everyone was masked and faceless. As a result, it was more difficult to find individual stories. The protests had changed, so I started to think about alternative ways.
In 2014, filming [the protests] on mobile phones was not very popular, but by 2019 everyone was using mobiles to report live from the street. They were doing something similar to what I had done in 2014 with my filmmaking, but in an even more immediate way. It was very powerful, and it made me think a lot about what I could do when holding a camera in the street. I would be recording footage that would not be shown until at least three years later, and so it was not directly effective at that moment. With mobile phones everyone can make something timely; as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been thinking about how to make something timeless.
Maybe I also became more experienced as a filmmaker, too, and started to think more about how to tell Hong Kong’s story? I started [Blue Island] in 2017 but it relates to the long history of Hong Kong’s identity. The protests in 2019 were not something that suddenly happened just because of the extradition bill, but because of a longer history.
MT: With this idea of history repeating, I wanted to ask about your research process. How did you come to better understand the history of Hong Kong?
CTW: When exploring history, I’m not using a top-down approach. We start with the individual’s experience of history, and from their experiences we can start to see a history of Hong Kong.
It was very difficult to put all the footage together. For a long time, I was thinking it would be impossible to complete the film. Every character has their own struggles, but eventually commonalities started to emerge. They have different political stances. They have different identities. But when we put the stories together, interestingly what I found consistent across different generations was that they had all asked the questions “what is Hong Kong?” and “who am I?” When they try to answer these questions, they pay a price. The authorities don’t want us to think too much, they just want us to focus on economic growth.
MT: How did you ensure the young people involved in the re-enactments were comfortable? It seems like it would have been quite an intense experience—for them, and for you.
CTW: It was new to me, and also new to them. I filmed all of the re-enactment scenes in 2020, about a year after the protests. When I did the casting, most people who turned up had their own experiences, whether as frontline protesters or in other ways. Most of them are non-professional actors, and the acting is actually not very good. However, when we were introduced to them, they told us their stories. For instance, one actor was facing arrest and had his trial coming up. So, though the acting is bad, I can see something in his face that says that it is not only a re-enactment to him. It is not fiction and not documentary, there are more layers there.
Since 2019, young people have been trying to do something other than just taking to the streets. They are thinking about making a film, or writing something. At that time, my assistant director and I started to share casting notices via Telegram groups. We found young people were very willing to participate when they heard the film was about Hong Kong and the protests. When protesters are waiting for a trial, they have to wait for a year or two. So they have to stay in Hong Kong and they can’t make long-term plans or find a stable job because they don’t know whether or not they are going to lose their freedom. They were searching for something to do and were open to ideas. I think the trust came because I had a track record, I had already made Yellowing.
MT: Blue Island is a very intense and moving film, even to an outsider like me. I wanted to ask lastly what you hope audiences will feel? Do you want it to be seen as a hopeful film, a mournful film, both?
CTW: Hong Kong is changing so much. We have very complicated emotions. This film is not just about the feeling of depression after the movement, but the long history of Hong Kong where we have not been able to determine our future. I want to bring out some hope, too—especially in the last scene, with all the faces. Many of those people are in prison now, and some have left Hong Kong and can never come back. When we put them together like this in sequence, we are trying to answer this question of “what is Hong Kong?” It was a faceless protest but now we can see the faces. Even though we have our difficulties and our struggles, we are not alone.
Matt Turner is a writer based in London.