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Movie Review: Pseudo Secular

Written by Jaspar Chan | Photos from Pseudo Secular Facebook Page

Pseudo Secular (風景), directed by local filmmaker and activist Rita Hui, is perhaps one of the most politically loaded movies to come out in 2016. Pseudo Secular did not feature at regular screenings across cinema chains in Hong Kong; instead, small-scale screenings were intermittently hosted at universities and independent venues, as well as a few online broadcasts organised by activist groups. A sprawling 176-minute-long undertaking, the movie deals with the social and political tribulations that befell Hong Kong over the past decade, with important segments of the film centred around the occupation of the plaza beneath the HSBC headquarters in Central during the first Occupy Central movement in 2011-12. The 2007 occupation of Queen’s Pier is touched upon, as are the protests and demonstrations during late 2009 and early 2010 over the Express Rail Link (XRL) controversy. Featuring an ensemble cast of diverse characters from across the strata of Hong Kong society, the movie focuses heavily on contemporary life in Hong Kong, focusing on the socio-economic problems faced by its characters as they navigate their way through life. Through its presentation of the experiences of the characters, the movie explores its various themes, providing a succinct and perceptive commentary on the social, political, and cultural challenges facing Hong Kong today.

The film is centred around a few main characters. Tai Cho is a despondent youth, a university dropout frustrated with the hypocrisy and inhibitions of modern society. Once a principled activist, his disillusionment with politics becomes evident following the jailing of his girlfriend, Ah Yi, at a protest. Tai Cho slowly develops a friendship with Ah Yi’s mother, Wan, a purposeless housewife deserted by both her daughter and her estranged husband, first over the endless hounding by journalists they both experience due to their respective relationships with Ah Yi, and later through mutual comfort and intimacy they both find with each other. For most of the movie, Ah Yi remains in prison, and the intensity of her resentment and fury towards her situation manifests in acrimonious diatribes against the objects of her ire: the biasedness of the justice system, the cynicism of her parole officer, the unfettered brutality of the police, the weasel words of the Democratic Party—and above all her helplessness and irrelevance in her own incarceration.

The issues of mainlandisation and xenophobia are examined through the character Li Lei, an immigrant from the mainland, via her encounters with the people in her life, including her Hong Kong-born boyfriend, and Ha Mai, an avant-garde drifter whom she befriends. Loosely connected to Li Lei’s storyline is Maxim’s, heir to his grandfather’s soy-sauce business, who, after a night out with Ha Mai, brings her to his home. Pessimistic about the direction of his life despite the recent box-office success of a biopic about his grandfather, Maxim drunkenly rants to Hai Mai about his lack of success as a heir and the decline of his grandfather’s famous soy sauce brand under his current leadership. In return for staying with him, Ha Mai asks Maxim to give up everything he owns, a request to which he happily acquiesces, ripping up his credit cards and the banknotes in his wallet in an euphoric moment of liberation.

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Pseudo Secular is a very overtly political movie, as reflected in the impact—or lack thereof—that major events affecting Hong Kong over the past few years have on the lives of the characters. The movie is reminiscent of the multitude of documentaries depicting Hong Kong’s protest culture to come out in the past few years, combining authentic footage of demonstrations and sit-ins with fictional scenes that showcase the humanity of their participants through re-enactments that never come off as hackneyed or aggressively partisan. A moment of introspection comes when the movie briefly bears upon the current debates revolving around the strategies of protests within the pro-democracy camp, with the value of Hong Kong’s protest culture itself challenged in one of these scenes, in which an activist questions the real impact of demonstrations in a time when marches have become a regular occurrence on weekends. In a particularly poignant scene voiced over by Ah Yi, the blindfolded participants of the Prostrating Walk of the Five Districts (a series of “prostrating walks” during 5-8 January 2010 to protest the demolition of Tsoi Yuen village during the XRL controversy) are depicted on screen, marching solemnly in the rain to the percussion of drums. It is a bleak series of shots accompanied by a dissonant, haunting soundtrack composed by the local singer-songwriter Wong Hin Yan.

The movie lacks a coherent plot—it does not culminate in some ultimate revelation or achieve any form of closure, nor do the unremarkable characters accomplish impressive feats in their storylines. On its Facebook page, the movie’s own description reads: “They are frozen in place, stagnating without any direction. Around them, things change rapidly.” The movie takes us into the mundane lives of these characters, in essence ordinary Hongkongers to whom the city’s political struggles would be little more than passing headlines in the news. Their lives are affected and changed all the same by the political developments and social turmoil of recent years, and while they may not think of their actions as being overtly political, the everyday decisions they make reflect their own complicity in maintaining—or subverting—the social and political order of the city. An embittered Maxim, shamed by his ex-girlfriend for allowing the commercialisation of his grandfather’s story by the media, ends up participating in various occupations of public spaces and protests around Hong Kong and eventually revives his grandfather’s soy-sauce brand by reverting back to traditional methods of production. Despite the relationships he cultivates with the activists he meets and the development of his own political worldview, Maxim fails to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Ah Man, over his indifference towards the land requisitions in Kwu Tong where his soy-sauce manufactories are based; his flippant dismissal of Man’s outrage over the requisitions as a fact of life reflects the blasé apathy of the middle classes towards the injustices suffered by those less well-off. For her part, Ah Man gives up an offer for a lucrative position as a news anchor, rejecting her editor’s non-critical approach to reporting and joining a lesser news network that allows her a greater degree of journalistic freedom. She interviews elderly immigrants in the low-income areas of Hong Kong, uncovering their life stories and piecing together a narrative of how Hong Kong’s cultural identity came to be. Through her interviews, she provides a much more authentic and realistic portrayal of the city’s local culture in contrast to its fetishisation in the biopic of Maxim’s grandfather; in this way, Pseudo Secular breaks the stereotype of locally-produced movies romanticising the “Hong Kong spirit”, surpassing the superficial and undiscerning attitude towards celebrating Hong Kong’s culture prevalent in the local media industry.

This movie is not without its shortcomings. The length of the movie could have been much shortened; although the movie’s bleak atmosphere is effectively captured by its frequent use of silent long stills, these scenes begin to feel unnecessarily prolonged in the later parts of the movie, especially as the movie continues to plod through its three-hour long runtime. Ah Yi’s monologues, spread out over the course of the movie, develops her character with equal parts subtlety and bluntness, but at times her angsty tirades feel overblown to the point of mawkishness. The large scale of the movie and the lack of an overarching plot means that character storylines go unresolved, leaving the viewer with a sense of inconclusiveness and melancholy—but then, this may well be the point of the movie.

Yet the movie’s flaws are relatively minor and become trivial when compared to the thought-provoking and perceptive socio-political commentary the movie offers. In addition to those themes aforementioned in this review, the movie touches upon a wide variety of issues; the relevance of traditional family values in cosmopolitan Hong Kong (Wan’s subdued rebellion against her identity as a housewife); the occupation and ‘reclamation’ of public spaces in a highly regulated and institutionalised environment (the movie’s representation of the Occupy movements of 2011 and 2014 and the occupation of Queen’s Pier in 2007, as well as the small occupation sites across Hong Kong that Maxim seeks out and visits); what obtaining true personal freedom really means in the face of suffocating social pressure to conform to social norms (Li Lei’s envy of Ha Mai’s wanderlust, Maxim’s desire for escapism which he fulfills through his participation in occupations of public space, Ah Yi’s likening of the outside world to just a different form of prison, much to the consternation of her cellmates, and the reactionary criticism Ah Man faces for objecting to the fetishisation of the vaunted “Lion Rock spirit”). Being a locally-made movie about the city’s society and politics, there are the usual messages of anti-authoritarianism and pro-democracy (as well as more left-leaning statements attacking capitalism and neoliberalism) present in the movie, but its political subtext is presented in a more nuanced and subtle way than in many other overtly-political movies in Hong Kong. The esotericism of the movie’s themes may be off-putting to casual viewers, but anyone can find something that resonates with them in the groundedness and verity of the movie’s depiction of life in Hong Kong.

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