Alas, there is really no suspense to be found in the political campaign this film documents. That is because the Beijing-controlled government of Hong Kong would do anything to prevent the election of an independent-minded (and independence-minded) candidate like Edward Leung. The fix was in, but he and his allies continued to fight the good fight throughout Nora Lam’s documentary profile, Lost in Fumes, which screens as part of the Metrograph new film series, To Hong Kong with Love, inspired by the democracy movement bravely demanding the HK government recognize its commitments to democracy and personal liberties as agreed to in the binding Joint Declaration.
Ironically, CCP propaganda claims the protestors seek to undermine the “One China Two Systems” doctrine, but it really Carrie Lam’s puppet government that has undermined the “two systems” part of the equation. Most of the protestors are advocating a real return to “One China Two Systems.” However, Leung is a different case. He and his Hong Kong Indigenous party were indeed advocating independence, which should have been their right, if Hong Kong were a more democratic system—but it isn’t.
There is a bit of street thuggery captured in the film, but the 2017-2018 period now looks like the calm before the storm compared to the systemic, orchestrated military-style campaigns of police brutality unleashed on the “Yellow” democracy movement in 2019. Yet, throughout the doc, we see the insidious ways Lam’s administration has institutionalized biases against competing political agendas into the fabric of the government. As a result, Leung and his running mates struggle with the dilemma of how their independence party can even stand for election when they must sign a pledge repudiating independence in order to be certified as candidates. For Leung, this is a profound quandary that literally drives him sick, physically and emotionally.
Nora Lam obviously had intimate access to Leung over the course of several years, but the portrait she creates is not slavishly starry-eyed. We definitely see Leung lose confidence and perhaps even start to wrestle with the depression that had plagued him before his activist days. Yet, that is exactly what makes Fumes so powerful. At the time of filming, Leung was only 25 years-old, but he was nearly reaching the point of burn-out. That is the effect Lam and her master Xi were having on the future generations of HK—and that was before they exposed an estimated 80% of the population to toxic tear gas.
Leung is a complicated figure, whose future is uncertain, but that is true for an entire generation of Hong Kongers. Lam’s film is a necessary reminder that 2019 protests and the “Five Demands” did not come out of nowhere and they did not start with the introduction of Beijing’s extradition bill. The events unfolding in Fumes occurred between the 2014 Umbrella protests and the current wave of mass demonstrations. It is clear from Leung’s struggles this was not a tranquil interregnum. There was indeed widespread discontent that the Lam regime met with heavy-handed tactics.
This is a valuable film, for a number of reasons, starting with the time it allows Leung and his colleagues to speak for themselves, without having to shout over Xi’s enforcers. It is a compelling snapshot of a young leader who still has a great deal of promise. Still, it is important to repeat most of the protestors in 2014 and 2019 (including prominent leaders like Nathan Law and Joshua Wong) were not advocating independence. Instead, they are risking their future prospects for the sake of universal suffrage, protection of free speech rights, an independent inquiry into police brutality, as well as the permanent withdrawal of the extradition and anti-mask laws. Clearly, they can learn from Leung’s experiences, as can the rest of the world. Highly recommended, Lost in the Fumes screens tomorrow (2/8) at the Metrograph, as part of their timely series, To Hong Kong with Love.