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► Revolution of Our Times is screening at a limited number of UK cinemas until April 30. 

Since its premiere in Cannes, Kiwi Chow’s epic documentary has been widely accepted as a modern classic: a detailed chronicle of the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, using footage from now-banned broadcasters (most notably, live-streamed webcasts by Gwyneth Ho of Stand News), phone-camera footage shot by protestors themselves, newly filmed interviews and a smidgen of new animation.

Chow provides only the necessary minimum of historical analysis and contexting; instead he offers a kind of psychological profile of the protest movement through its victories and setbacks as seen and experienced by those involved. At its peak in June 2019, the protest brought some two million people to the streets of Hong Kong, well over a quarter of the entire population of the ‘Special Administrative Region’.

Revolution of Our Times (Sidoi Gaakming in Cantonese; it’s the second half of a slogan used by the protest movement) is framed in nine chapters, each documenting a key incident or phase in the escalating protests. A brief prologue establishes the context: the Sino-British Agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” signed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in 1984, the actual political handover in 1997, and the 2017 unilateral statement from China’s foreign ministry that the 1984 Joint Declaration “no longer has any practical significance and is not at all binding”.

Without further explanations – specifically, without going into the kidnapping of ‘troublesome’ Hong Kong individuals and the introduction of a bill allowing legal extraditions from Hong Kong to China in Hong Kong’s Legco (Legislative Council) – the film plunges straight into the ever-more-violent and turbulent demonstrations that effectively paralysed parts of the city in the second half of 2019.

Chow anchors the chronicle by highlighting a number of individuals caught up in the protests, showing them in action in the reportage footage and later interviewing them about their thoughts and feelings – without disclosing their identities. (A few involved observers like the reporter Gwyneth Ho and the legal scholar Benny Tai, both now in jail, are interviewed without masks or blurring of their faces.)

The choice of participant-witnesses is astute in including people of very different ages and from equally different backgrounds: at one end of the spectrum “Uncle Chan”, an elderly smallholder who has been farming in Ma Shi Po in the New Territories since the 1980s and feels a duty to “protect the kids”, and at the other the young men “Motor”, a paramedic who rushed to help victims of police brutality, and “V-boy”, a teenager wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta who lied to his parents about joining the protests. Two key figures are from the professional class: a man in his thirties nicknamed “Dad” and a woman in her twenties nicknamed “Mom”, both active in the organisation and management of protests. Also integrated are tributes to those who died of injuries allegedly inflicted by police action or killed themselves in despair.

V-boy, the schoolboy protestor in a V for Vendetta mask
V-boy, the schoolboy protestor in a V for Vendetta mask

Kiwi Chow contributed an episode to the now-banned omnibus feature Ten Years (Sap Nin, 2015, a prescient set of predictions about what Hong Kong would look like in 2025) and this magnum opus shows that his sense of cinema has made good progress. He makes vivid use of reportage footage, including amazing drone or helicopter top-shots showing vast crowds on the urban streets following Bruce Lee’s advice to “be like water” – scattering, dispersing and then regrouping. He follows Eisenstein’s model by cross-cutting between National Day parades in Beijing and bloodshed in Hong Kong. And he manages his 152-minute running-time by structuring the film as a water-like ebb and flow of victories and setbacks for the protest movement.

There’s no triumphalism, and the debates within the movement about damage to state property and meeting violence with violence are given due prominence. The movement inevitably ends in defeat – the long Chapter 8 is devoted to the doomed occupation in November of the Polytechnic University campus, shown in harrowing detail – but Chow doesn’t resort to crude agit-prop for his defiant ending. His punchline in Chapter 9 is that the events of 2019 have consolidated a shift, fomenting since 1997, of Hong Kong people’s sense of their own identity as “Hongkongers”, as distinct from “Chinese”. This, of course, makes them comparable with Tibetans and Uighurs – not to mention the Taiwanese – as a group opposed to autocratic, lawless rule from Beijing. Hong Kong no longer enjoys freedom of speech, but the closing caption says it all: “A film by Hongkongers”.