Director Derek Chiu’s ambitious project ” No. 1 Chung Ying Street” started in 2011 when a participant of the 1967 riots asked him if he was interested in developing a script out of his own experience of a 16-year-old boy, arrested for possession of leftist leaflets. What Derek Chiu couldn’t imagine at the time,was the amount of difficulties he was about to experience in the making of the movie. Application for funding was rejected and consequently the fear of China’s disapproval made it really difficult to find private investors and even to cast the actors he wanted. Any actor, actually! The movie – not released in Hong Kong – won the Grand Prix for best picture at the Osaka Asian Film Festival this March, it was presented at Udine Far East Film Festival in April and it will probably circulate in the festival circuit. But before talking about the movie, it is useful to place it in his context.
Unless you have been living in a cave for the last 4 years, chances are you have heard of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong that in 2014 occupied the street of Central, protesting against the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and their decision to pre-select the candidates for election of the region’s leader. However, due to the considerable time gap it’s a bit less likely that you might have heard of the leftist, anti-British riots and bombings that occurred in Hong Kong in 1967. This relevant historical episode is still a sensitive issue and is still controversial, even more so in the light of the 2014 protests when people of Hong Kong had to fight once again for democracy but – paradoxically – against a very different opponent.
In the spring of 1967 – triggered by a dispute at an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong – the tense political climate in Hong Kong degenerated rapidly into a large-scale protest, with strikes and demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong. Protesters were inspired by the events in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the riots addressed the British Hong Kong Government. In that occasion, the Hong Kong Police Force engaged fiercely with the demonstrators and carried out many arrests. Consequently, the protest escalated and turned even more violent with killings and bombings. The riots came to an end in December when Beijing expressed official disapproval. By then, the riots had claimed 51 lives, more than 800 were injured and the lives of the survivors and the almost 2,000 imprisoned had changed forever.
Chun-man (Yau Hawk-sau) is a teenager in 1967 Hong Kong and together with his childhood friend Lai-wah (Fish Liew) and wealthy family boy Chi-ho (Lo Chun-yip) form a happy and seemingly cheerful trio. But their carefree days are bound to come to an end very soon. Tensions are bubbling, protesters are getting louder and even the leftist, pro-China school that Chun-man attends encourages pupils to help out with leaflets. Chun-man is passionate about the cause and participates with his dad and Lai-wah’s dad to the strikes and demonstrations against the British colonial government, bringing along Wing-kuen, an illegal immigrant he is protecting and helping to hide. Lai-wah and Chi-ho don’t really understand Chu-man’s and Wing-kuen’s passion and motivations but they love their friends and the four will face an abrupt coming of age that will scar their future lives.
In a very near future, in 2019, three teenagers are still paying the high price for their involvement in the 2014 occupation of Central to pressure the PRC Government into reforming the election systems. Sze-wai (Fish Liew) has just been released from prison and her ex-boyfriend Yee-hon (Lo Chun-yip) – who somehow managed to skip such a harsh punishment – wants to reconnect with her. However Sze-wai is still emotionally unstable after her experience in jail and attracted to Yee-hong (Yau Hawk-sau) one of the protester’s leader who has been hiding for a long time in an old farmer’s little property in Sha Tau Kok, on the border with China. The old man is actually Wing-kuen, the illegal immigrant and friend of Chun-man in 1967, and when property developers attempt to take the land away from him, the three young friends help him to organise the resistance.
There is a sense of irony in watching the young protesters in 1967 holding up copies of Mao’s little red book, that contrasts harshly with the almost-nihilistic mood of the 2019. In “No. 1 Chung Ying Street” history repeat itself in a strange way, as the focus of these two historical moments is not the “enemy” these young adults are facing, but the passion behind their action; once again, people of Hong Kong have to rise and fight the governance policies. And to stress the sense of repetition, the characters in the two time slots are played but the same three actors.
The film is shot in back and white because, as the director explained, it is a forgiving way to cover up the budget problems they faced all along. The first section, set in the past has a bright and soft quality that well conveys the historical setting, while the future section is contrastingly sharp and cold.
The first part works better in my opinion, even if the budget constrains end up affecting the power of the group scenes of protesters, which are complemented with original pictures of the era. The second part somehow doesn’t flow so smoothly, some of the timing and continuity felt a bit strange to me and maybe the fact that the dispute about land in Sha Tau Kok is fictional makes it slightly disconnected. The love stories that intertwine with the political plot in both parts feel also unnecessary but I guess it was a way to lighten up what otherwise would be very bleak material.
“No. 1 Chung Ying Street” is not an optimistic movie, especially the second part that is infused with a taste of failure of the Umbrella Movement, and the film has some little flaws but it shouts out that is a labour of love, a story that needed to be told with passion and Derek Chiu certainly did. Moreover, the challenges and hardships endured to make it happen are having the collateral effect of catalyzing even more attention on the disappearing freedom of expression in Hong Kong.