Politics in Hong Kong is complicated with its colonial past and current ‘one country, two systems’ under the People’s Republic of China. Voting in the former colony remains contentious with the election of Carrie Lam in March in 2017. Moreover, free speech has been tightening, as a journalist in the film says when asked about Xi Jinping’s rise to power “Will I get kidnapped?” It is amidst these issues that Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (now available on Netflix) was released.
The film traces the recent political history of Hong Kong through the lens of Joshua Wong, a young activist in the fight against the implementation of national education in Hong Kong and the Umbrella Revolution. In line with certain genre conventions, Joshua is filled with news footage, on-the-ground scenes, and talking heads, which include other activists, journalists, and academics. The film also covers related current events, such as the election of Xi Jinping in the PRC as well as the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015.
The focus on the grassroots movements has a strong affect with its orchestral non-diegetic music and images of young students taking center stage. At the same time, the documentary also explains the fractioning of the movement from within during the time of Occupy Central. Although the agenda of the film was quite clear with its sympathies lying with the students and protesters, it also showed, perhaps too strongly as an over-corrective, that protests and social movements have their own problems, such as accusations of making Joshua into an icon/celebrity and eventually, the movement running out of steam.
Of course, the equivalency of the Umbrella Revolution to 1989’s Tian’anmen had to be made, almost as if in homage to all of the news reporting that also likened the two student led movements. As one of the protesters said about the Umbrella Revolution when police in Hong Kong cracked down, “[it] was like an image of hell.” This is reinforced by the police forcefully grabbing Joshua out of the crowd and trying to pull him away from protesters. These images morphed into more broad strokes of violence that resonated with images from June 4th, 1989. Tear gas canisters fogged the streets, sparks flying overhead, people being wheeled away, and protesters helping each other wash tear gas out of their eyes all add to a strong image of resistance.
In our current situation in America, the notion of protest and political resistance is all the more relevant. The end of the film provides a sense of universal hope with a montage of what all the young protesters had done or plan to do. The last scene is of Nathan, a young protest leader, winning a seat in the legislator, and it is a sign, perhaps, of hope for the future but not without its own hesitation when the subtitle explains that Beijing has tried to negate Nathan’s win to prevent him from serving. It brings to light the nuance of social movements. There is no unified movement, but there is a humanizing of the movement, showing the resilience, beauty in protest, and the coming together of a political community. Whether it is Hong Kong or the United States, as one of the protesters says, “we have to face real politics.”