Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Looks like this is one week and out in the Coolidge's virtual room, so if you're reading this on 22/23 July 2020, watch it now, if you feel like it might be your thing. Like I say in the review, I don't know how much new material I actually learned from it - I didn't know much about Denise Ho, but I'd known some of the basics of the Hong Kong protests - but it does a nice job of sorting it out and putting it in place, which is valuable.

One thing I found kind of amusing is that the film more or less skips over the fact that, like her mentor and idol Anita Mui, Denise Ho has been an actor as well as a pop star, something not exactly unusual in Hong Kong, and after following some links through her IMDB entry and my own reviews, I saw that I'd liked her in Life Without Principle. I suspect that, like the rest of her entertainment career, she wound up shut out from even Hong Kong productions via companies' self-censorship. I absolutely see why you don't include that part of her career in an 85-minute movie, but I was amused, because I was just having an online conversation about how the line between "pop star" and "movie star" is much more porous in Asia than it is in the English-speaking world.

I probably give this a bit of extra credit because not only do I love Hong Kong and regret how, if I ever get to go back, it won't be the same, but apparently she spent her teen years in Montreal, where I should be right now. This is just a frustrating part of the 21st Century all around.

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Kino Marquee via Roku)

Those looking for an easy entry into just what's going on in Hong Kong right now could do a lot worse than starting with Denise Ho: Becoming the Song, in large part because filmmaker Sue Williams presents it as something inextricably intertwined with her subject, not just necessary background or something on which an ignorant audience must be educated.

Williams starts with news stories about Denise Ho Wan-Si (also known as "HOCC" to her fans) being banned in mainland China due to her support of the "umbrella movement" and the later protests against a broad extradition law in Hong Kong before both showing how she arrived in that position and how she works as both an activist and entertainer. It is, in large part, told from Ho's point of view - not only is she an active participant in the film, giving Williams a great deal of access, but very few of the other people interviewed talk much about her life, with even her brother mostly talking about their musical collaborations. Most of the other people interviewed discuss the greater forces around her.

It is a story that spans the globe while also being grounded in this area that is but a dot on a world map, and in that way makes her representative of Hong Kong itself. Williams uses that to push back into the 1980s, when Anita Mui Yim-Fong was becoming the region's biggest star by fusing Western-style pop and Cantonese lyrics into "canto-pop" right around the same time that Great Britain and China were codifying their plans to return Hong Kong. Ho's parents, teachers, were among the many that obtained foreign passports and emigrated (to Montreal), though she would return in search of a music career and mentorship from Mui. As her "disciple", Ho would spend a great deal of time after in Mui's early death following in her footsteps before carving out a persona more explicitly her own and building a Mandarin-language career in the mainland until her outspokenness destroyed that and self-censorship by Hong Kong and international businesses did the rest. It's a fine line between presenting Ho's experience as a typical parallel for what's going on in Hong Kong as a whole while still acknowledging that she's a rock star and her version of it is larger than life.

That said, a large part of what makes the film enjoyable is how pleasant a personality Ho is on-screen. Both her work protesting and managing a music career - whether in terms of creating or managing the nuts and bolts of a tour without a record-label support system - display a humility that doesn't seem performative or unnatural. She never pretends to be confused about why someone would make a movie about her and has clearly put some thought into everything she says and does, without seeming calculated. It's often a fine line to walk between being artistic and pragmatic, and it makes the film go down easy. Most of the other people interviewed, from fellow entertainer Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming to former government officials and academics, have a similar sense, very affable and passionate but firm rather than fiery.

Williams puts it together well, tending to show something for long enough for the audience to get the idea and then clarifying and filling in details rather than building up to a revelation or explaining something that was vague enough to leave the audience confused, making the information dumps entertaining but serious, accommodating those who are just learning about all of this while acknowledging that most watching probably have some sort of existing interest in the subject. She chooses good performance footage to get the emotion across to viewers who only speak English. What the subtitling crew does can seem a little cutesy - text made to look handwritten that appears in different areas of the screen - but it's readable and keeps one's eyes from settling at the bottom of the screen.

I don't expect Becoming the Song will be the sort of documentary that has a huge impact on many viewers; it's the sort of thing where one has to have some sort of prior interest to find it in the first place and it's built more to fill in gaps rather than shift perspectives. It's well put-together and goes down easy, with just enough meat to it that most watching it will come away knowing a little bit more, a bit better able to research further and understand what's going on as the situation keeps evolving.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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