TIFF Review: Christopher Doyle's 'Hong Kong Trilogy'

Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous (Hoeng gong saam bou kuk)
(Hong Kong, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Christopher Doyle
Featuring: Connie Ming Shan Yuen, Thierry Chow, Ching Man Lip, Vodka Pal Hei Wong
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Grandmaster cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes his feature documentary debut as a director with the gorgeously bizarre film Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous. (There should probably be some commas in there, but it’s an arty one.) Calling HK: PPP a documentary doesn’t do the film justice, though, since this free-flowing and artfully democratic docudrama infuses elements of fiction, non-fiction, and (arguably) performance art for a truly contemporary film experience. Don’t look at Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous as straight documentary: this film defies convention for a fully immersive experience in a city framed anew.

Hong Kong Trilogy presents a triptych of generational tales of Hong Kong as with preschoolers (kids, but not necessarily pre-schoolers in the North American connotation), preoccupied teens and young adults, and finally, preposterous senior citizens. The film features narration from real citizens of Hong Kong young and old (hence the documentary element) who then dramatize stories and action to complement their thoughts and feelings. The first sequence, Preschooled, mostly features the story of a boy named Vodka and his renegade toy turtle, which he sets free at a waterfall at the inkling of his friend’s Buddhist teachings. The missing toy leads him to question his friend—and Buddha—as a lost turtle simply equals a sad face and a tsk-tsk from mommy.

A greater act of questioning comes in the second chapter, Preoccupied, which features the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in which young adults shut down the city and forced citizens to rethink the idea of freedom. (The Umbrella Movement shares considerable traits with the Occupy Movement.) The Umbrella name comes from the defense against pepper spray from police using umbrellas, and Doyle uses the symbol as a motif throughout the film to inspire viewers to open their minds. This chapter, which comprises the bulk of HK: PPP’s running team, displays the most bipolar engagements with documentary and drama. As Doyle’s camera observes the protestors in action, the film captures the full scope of the tent city that blocked traffic and created a city within a city in which peace and prosperity take value over fast-paced consumerism. The voiceovers of the students offer a mix of idealist passion and pragmatic philosophy as they discuss Hong Kong’s future and rally together to make a new society that does away with the current outdated ideology.

The film uses the immediacy of documentary observation as Doyle pans along the rows and rows of tents, which are organized precisely with functional mail systems, and looks at how simple it is to create a new and improved harmonious society with collective will and action. The film takes a special interest in the Imagine Wall that borders the Umbrella zone, which gets its inspiration from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The occupiers refinish the wall with inspirational notes and posts from around the globe and show that dreamers can be more when they band together. The film asks if Hong Kong may ever return to its pre-Occupy days as the leaders of the future become invigorated for change, but jaded by a system that fails them and disregards their needs.

Preoccupied veers strongest from documentary, though, with its sequences in the underground in which members of the Umbrella Movement meet and strategize their plans. The action itself is plausible, but Doyle shifts his mode of approach from passive observation to a more active and engaged camera. The all-seeing eye of HK: PPP both betrays and advances documentary, as the coverage of the scenes is too great to be candid. Clear shot/reverse shots are evident, as is the range of angles that cover the scenes. It nevertheless feels authentic because the inspiration and impetus of the drama is real.

The final sequence, Preposterous, features a droll trolley train of senior citizens embarking on a day of speed dating. Characters from the first two sequences intersect this narrative as the eldest generation of Hong Kong tries to fill the empty void in its life. This chapter of the film is the most lyrical and poetic with the characters mediating on their lives and their notions of freewill as time fades.

Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous finds an engaging life and energy to the city as it frames Hong Kong anew. The city’s citizens, rather than its iconic sights and contemporary skyline, define the city here, and it’s a lyrical world that reflects on the past, present, and future. Doyle’s cinematography is characteristically excellent as it favours the immediacy of documentary aesthetics over the more ornately dazzling masterwork of his most famous dramatic shoots like Hero and In the Mood for Love. The film asks for a collective re-evaluation of society and Doyle leaves the audience with the open question of whether an idealized society should be fact or fiction.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.
More coverage on this year’s festival can be found here.