In Black Bauhinia, The Political Becomes Personal

Black Bauhinia (2021), directed and co-produced by Dr. Malte Kaeding, is a feature-length documentary that follows the Hong Kong localism movement and the personal stories of two young leaders, Edward Leung and Ray Wong. The key events and turning points in the movement are recounted through archival footage and interviews with activists, legislative council members, political commentators, and academics. What makes this a compelling documentary is not only the crisp, organized narrative structure, but also its willingness to dive headfirst into emotional topics and share the stories of the young activists forced to choose between spending the prime of their youth in prison or leaving their homeland as political refugees.

Localism is a movement to preserve the political and cultural autonomy of Hong Kong, born in response to China’s tightening political and economic grip on the city. Those involved in this movement view the influx of Chinese tourists and immigrants as a threat to the language, norms, values, and way of life that differentiate Hong Kong from Chinese cities. However, they are careful to emphasize that they do not want to be defined by what they are against, but rather by what they are fighting for: their vision for an autonomous, democratic Hong Kong. The title references the unofficial flag of the pro-democracy protests, a variation of Hong Kong’s flag where the red background is painted black, representing the public dissatisfaction with the city’s current direction.

The film captures the chaos and violence in standoffs between protesters and police forces, with some scenes transporting the viewer in the midst of the protest, with smoke bombs whizzing by at eye level, but the overall tone of the documentary is a reflective one, mirroring the introspective nature of the interviewed activists. Ray, the co-founder of Hong Kong Indigenous, and Edward, a former localist candidate, made immense political progress through grassroots organization, achieving over 15% of the vote in the 2016 election and skyrocketing the movement into mainstream media, far beyond what many thought was possible. But at no point does the film put the activist leaders on a pedestal. Rather, it gives them space to open up about their insecurities, their fears and their hopes. Yes, they are leaders of an unprecedented movement, but the film reminds viewers that they, in many respects, are just like any other young adult; they sleep in, go to traditional festivals, and study for school. The down-to-earth interviews allow viewers to grasp the depth of Ray and Edward’s political convictions, which stem from their love of Hong Kong and their utopian vision for democracy and self-determination.

Through the sweeping drone shots of the towering apartment complexes peeking through the morning fog and the glittering reflection of skyscrapers on the shoreline, it is easy to understand why Hong Kongers love their city. The minimalistic piano music accompanying these shots accentuates the fragility of the current conditions and evokes anticipatory nostalgia, or the yearning for the present moment before it has passed. What would become of the city if it comes fully under China’s iron grip? What would citizens sacrifice in hopes of retaining Hong Kong’s autonomy and unique identity? The film explores questions like these and invites viewers to imagine what it feels like to see their homeland be transformed into something unrecognizable, something they can no longer call home.

As with any documentary covering a rapidly evolving situation, there have already been several new developments since the release of the film. Nevertheless, Black Bauhinia is a cohesive introduction to the localism movement and raises international awareness of the issues Hong Kong is grappling with.

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