‘Blue Island’ Review: In Hong Kong, the Past Is Present

In “Blue Island,” a hybrid of documentary and dramatization from the director Chan Tze Woon, real-life students from contemporary Hong Kong perform re-enactments of the political struggles of previous generations.

Two students, Anson Sham and Siu Ying, step into the shoes of a couple, Chan Hak-chi and Git Hing, who fled to Hong Kong from the Cultural Revolution in 1973; part of the re-enactment of the escape is crosscut with documentary footage of a crackdown on demonstrators in Hong Kong in 2019. Elsewhere, Keith Fong Chung-yin, a student activist, meets with and plays Kenneth Lam, who traveled to Beijing in 1989 in solidarity with the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

The younger subjects’ recent experiences color their portrayals. “You’re not just playing a 20-year-old Kenneth in the ’80s. You are also playing yourself,” the director instructs Fong, in one of many moments when the movie breaks the fourth wall. Elsewhere, Raymond Young, incarcerated by the British for bulletins he circulated in 1967, sits in a prison cell with Kelvin Tam Kwan-long, the student protester playing him (who notes that he’s been charged with rioting and is awaiting trial himself), and tells him that time will erode his ideals.

“Blue Island” shows how Hong Kong residents have redefined themselves over time. Tam, while playing Young in 1967, defiantly tells a British official that he is Chinese. A moment later, Tam, still in costume but now appearing as himself, insists to an interrogator that he is not Chinese, but a Hong Konger.

The movie concludes with a lengthy, silent montage of people who have faced charges for their involvement in pro-democracy activism. It is impossible to watch “Blue Island” without admiring their courage. The past-present parallelism is provocative, but it also seems faintly superficial — a way of eliding distinctions and streamlining history.

Blue Island
Not rated. In Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.

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