The people of Hong Kong have spoken, over and over and over. They voted overwhelmingly for universal suffrage in the city-wide privately-sponsored 2014 referendum. Then they came out in record numbers for the Umbrella protests of 2014 and the Five-Demands-Not-One-Less demonstrations of 2019, finally codifying their commitment to democracy with the historic landslide election of reformer candidates in the December district council elections. Of course, Beijing and its puppet executive Carrie Lam did not want to hear them. Yet, there was a time in 2014 when activists genuinely hoped the Communist government would abide by the principles of “One China, Two Systems.” James Leong documents those hopefully early days of the movement in Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s ongoing film series, To Hong Kong with Love.
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the democracy advocacy organization founded by academics Benny Tai and Dr. Chan Kin-man only wanted to “occupy” Central as a last resort. They conceived of the 2014 referendum as a means of expressing Hong Kong’s democratic ideals and aspirations. Unfortunately, Beijing arrogantly insisted on pre-selecting the candidates, which they described their brand of democracy, in aptly Orwellian terms. The leadership of Occupy Central was profoundly disappointed, but the students of Hong Kong just weren’t having it. They jumped out ahead of Occupy, launching massive demonstrations, forcing Chan and Tai to scramble to catch up.
The violence unleashed by the Hong Kong Police Force in 2019 was so brutal, it makes the tear-gassing and thuggery recorded in First Umbrella look comparatively mild. Nonetheless, it is clear from the anguished responses of parents and students looking on from behind police cordons, Hong Kong’s innocence died during 2014. The HKPF murdered it.
Leong mainly sticks to a strictly observational approach, but he captures key players at pivotal moments. Tai, Chan, Joshua Wong, Oscar Lai, and Agnes Chow all appear at length. The film also turns out to be admirably fair and balanced, given the equal time it allows pro-Beijing activist Robert Chow, who subsequently became notorious for his “snitch line” to inform on student activists and their schools. He is slick, but his smooth talk is undermined by his followers’ crude attempts to harass and intimidate young pro-democracy students. Indeed, this might be the most important part of the film, because it foreshadows the rampages committed by pro-Beijing “white shirts” in 2019.
It is important to remember things will get a whole lot worse for the student activists and Hong Kong during the period shortly after Leong’s doc concludes. Nevertheless, it is fully loaded telling moments. Indeed, the same on-the-fly logistical organizational skills viewers see amid the demonstrations is similarly reflected in Demosisto’s recent efforts to purchase and import millions of face masks for Hong Kongers during the Coronavirus crisis, after Carrie Lam shipped all the local stockpiles to China, to please her master.
What we see in First Umbrella is often inspiring, but it is also bittersweet. Just as importantly, there are many timely lessons to be learned throughout the film. It is like watching history unfold, which is always a valuable experience. Highly recommended, Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella screens this Saturday (2/29) at the Metrograph.