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Review: Stirring doc ‘Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower’ captures emergence of a young leader

Hong Kong youth Joshua Wong takes on the Chinese government on education and democracy in the documentary "Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower."
(Netflix)

Hong Kong high school student Joshua Wong certainly doesn’t look like the type of person who could pull hundreds of thousands of teenagers away from their electronics and get them to rally behind a formidable resistance movement.

But that’s the compelling point of entry for the skillfully immersive documentary “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” a stirring David vs. Goliath rendering by Joe Piscatella that took home this year’s Audience Award at Sundance.

When we first meet the slight, unassuming Christian, Joshua seems more like the type of kid who’d spend his extracurricular time tinkering in a robotics class rather than passionately taking on the Chinese government.

He wasn’t even born when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule. But when the autonomy afforded Hong Kong under the “one China, two systems” was threatened in 2011 with Beijing announcing its intentions of establishing a pro-China national education program in Hong Kong schools, Joshua found his activist voice, establishing the Scholarism movement with several classmates.

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He quickly progressed beyond hoisting a bullhorn and handing out leaflets by camping out in front of the government’s civic square with some 120,000 supporters in tow. They ultimately succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of plans to enforce the Chinese Communist Party curriculum.

Three years later, Wong, just shy of his 18th birthday, raised the stakes, hitching his Scholarism movement to Benny Tai’s Occupy Central bandwagon, protesting China’s refusal to allow Hong Kong to elect its own local leaders, effectively shutting down Hong Kong’s business and financial district for two months.

Fearing the escalation of another Tiananmen Square situation, police eventually evacuate the thousands of young protesters, but not before Joshua has emerged as an influential player in the resistance movement.

Capturing every key moment with the sort of immediacy and tension usually found in the type of political dramas crafted by Paul Greengrass or the late Sydney Pollack, director Piscatella maintains an engaging grip on his unassuming subject’s ascendancy. His previous documentary, “#chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator,” possessed a similar empowering dynamic.

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That cinematic quality is especially on display with the Occupy Central footage, with Wong fervently addressing his flourishing following amid an undulating wave of colorful umbrellas (the protesters’ affordable shield of choice for blocking tear gas) with added inspiration provided by handwritten banners quoting lyrics from “Les Misérables” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Since then, Wong, now 20, and his fellow Scholarism principals have founded the pro-democratic political party Demosisto, and although the activist is still too young to run for office, Piscatella leaves us with the distinct feeling that Joshua, like his biblical namesake, has only just begun to lead.

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‘Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower’

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In English and Chinese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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