'Hong Kong Trilogy' captures 3 generations of a place at a crossroads

As murky waves lap against the houseboat in Hong Kong harbor, Red Cap Girl lights a candle and prays at her homemade shrine. In front of cutout pictures of a seemingly random assortment of deities that includes Jesus and Buddha, she asks whoever might be listening to protect her and her family.

The 9-year-old later describes her dreams of escaping Hong Kong's dense and cacophonous high-rise cityscape for a simple adulthood spent farming lettuce in the countryside, an unusual ambition in a territory where generations of farmers worked with the hope that their children would have white-collar careers.

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Red Cap Girl is one of the voices animating "Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous," the latest work by Christopher Doyle, a cinematographer and adopted son of the city. Capturing Hong Kong in all its political, generational and economic complexity has never been easy, but with the former British colony of 7.4 million at one of its most uncertain times in years, the task is perhaps harder than ever.

"Hong Kong Trilogy" is a story of the semiautonomous Chinese territory at a crossroads. Combining feature and documentary elements, the film uses audio interview recordings as narration for fictive scenes featuring those same interviewees.

The movie's spine is a section on the so-called Umbrella Movement, student-led protests that paralyzed the financial hub for 10 weeks in fall 2014. As the idealistic students set up tent cities, Doyle lingered with his camera, capturing candid moments of youths working on art installations, delivering mail through their own improvised system and growing vegetables at a farm that rose from "tar and concrete."

Doyle made his bones as a filmmaker on those same streets. Still with a youthful demeanor at age 63 ("63 going on 10," is how producer Jenny Suen describes him), he left his native Australia at age 18 to avoid being conscripted for service in the Vietnam War. "I told my parents I'd be back in a year," he says. "That was 46 years ago."

He took a circuitous route to filmmaking, with stints practicing Chinese medicine, herding cows and drilling oil in various countries. A reputed bon vivant, Doyle has described himself as the "Keith Richards of cinematography." He looks the part, with a weathered visage caused by many late nights and a mop of curly hair, now almost entirely gray, that nearly covers his eyes.

Among people who have worked with him, Doyle is as famous for his rambunctiousness and round-clock-consumption of alcohol as he is for his graceful cinematography. "People regard me as sort of eccentric, crazy or totally out of my mind," Doyle said. He then smirks, shrugs slightly and says, "I can live with that."

Throughout an afternoon interview over glasses of wine in the lobby of his hotel in Busan, where "Trilogy" is playing at the city's film festival, Doyle is intermittently approached by acquaintances from the Asian movie circuit. After embracing and sharing stories like an old friend with one woman, Doyle retakes his seat and whispers, "I have no idea who that is."

Doyle is exceptional as a foreigner who is also a revered figure in the pantheon of Hong Kong cinema. He has collaborated with prominent directors including Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, the mainland's Zhang Yimou and Gus Van Sant, and produced music videos with DJ Shadow and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

In his collaborations with Wong such as "In the Mood for Love," Doyle produced images that were beautiful but with a rough edge, colored with the grit of Hong Kong. When filming the Umbrella Movement, he chose to hone in on the makeshift communities that sprouted up. He wished to capture the interactions behind the politics, and the unusual intimacy on normally bustling streets that had come to a sudden halt.

"These events, which were quasi-political as well as socioeconomic, we think that they're about community more than politics," Doyle said.

One of the section's characters is a 27-year-old feng shui expert named Thierry who spends some of her time on camera asking lofty, rhetorical questions, including, "Why does fate exist?"

The Umbrella Movement was born of a sense that Hong Kong's unique identity is at risk of being subsumed by mainland China. One of the protesters' main grievances was an insistence by Beijing that only candidates nominated by a committee seen as beholden to the Chinese Communist Party would be eligible to run for Hong Kong's chief executive, the territory's top government post.

In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty after being ruled by the British since 1842. The post-hand over framework is called "one country, two systems," with Hong Kong given a wide degree of autonomy. But the system is supposed to last only 50 years — something that worries many in Hong Kong who value their city's freedom of expression, association and religious worship.

"Hong Kong is a city with an expiration date, and that's coming in 2047. We're reacting to this impending sense of loss by fighting back," Suen said.

Like Hong Kong itself, "Trilogy" is hard to categorize. At its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it was in the features category; at South Korea's Busan International Film Festival last month, it's being called a documentary.

Doyle isn't keen to choose a side. "Even we're not sure what to call it. All we can say is that it's personal, poetic and political," he said.

The "Preoccupied" section of "Trilogy" is sandwiched between two other stories — "Preschooled" looks at an even younger generation while "Preposterous" focuses on Hong Kong's senior set.

"Trilogy" got its start in 2014 when Doyle was commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival to do a short film on children. The filmmakers then decided to build on that by filming sections of two other generations. Their objective is to bring the voices of these three groups, who don't tend to have much contact, into one place to provide a broader take on life in Hong Kong.

That first section is called "Preschooled," and in it Red Cap Girl is joined by a young man who uses beatboxing to express his lovelorn feelings. There is also a portly 8-year-old boy named Vodka, who, in one of the movie's most engaging scenes, whimpers while being berated by police for littering in a park as he gorged on salty snacks.

Viewers are liable to laugh or cry in the third section, titled "Preposterous," which features elderly Hong Kongers on a daytime outing, partaking in activities that include an awkward session of speed dating.

Hong Kong's complicated history pokes through the lighthearted surface as one elderly woman recounts how she swam to Hong Kong Island in a desperate attempt to escape Communist rule in mainland China. She notes that the beach she swam up on decades earlier is now one of the world's busiest container ports.

A review in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper found this section insensitive to its subjects, arguing, "By showing fictional speed-dating events for embarrassed senior citizens but giving little attention to their inner thoughts, this final part comes bewilderingly close to mocking its elderly participants."

Suen says the film's subjects were drawn from a year she spent interviewing more than 100 regular Hong Kongers. She said that even when interviewees weren't telling sad stories, the interviews bore feelings of catharsis and pent-up emotion being released.

The filmmakers say concerns over money have come to dominate life in Hong Kong, leaving little time for community or reflection. "I realized that no one had ever come to these people and earnestly asked them how they felt, and that people on all sides are exhausted by how fractured our society has become," said Suen.

"Trilogy" had its Hong Kong premiere in late September and has garnered emotional responses at local screenings, the filmmakers say. It is now making the rounds on the festival circuit, and Suen is seeking partners for a U.S. release.

The team struggled to secure funding for an art-house documentary without any stars, a tall order in a film business that has been transformed by infusions of mainland money.

"Over the past five years or so, it has become impossible to find investors for just Hong Kong film — you have to look to mainland China," Suen says. She turned to crowdfunding via Kickstarter, where she collected around $120,000 of the film's $200,000 budget.

"Nowadays it's either 'Fast and Furious 25' or it's on YouTube. There's nothing in between," Doyle said.

Doyle has made more than 60 films and churns out around five projects per year. Despite the challenging climate, Doyle says the beauty of creating images to give voice to ideas will keep him behind the camera.

"Filmmaking has to have the fluidity of jazz and the beauty of dance," he says. "I hold the camera in front of me and watch it dance. It's a beautiful thing."

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 08, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Three generations at a crossroads - Adopted son Christopher Doyle seeks to capture a complicated land in `Hong Kong Trilogy.' - WORLD CINEMA" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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