Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song—and the Voice of Hong Kongers

It is hard to hold back the tears watching Cantopop idol Denise Ho and her fellow democracy activists in this film. Not just because they are inspiring—although that is certainly true—but because the sense of hope it documents was dealt such a harsh setback yesterday. As of today, 7.5 million Hong Kongers are no longer free and we let it happen, because we are more preoccupied with Trump’s tweets and our own grievances. Democracy died not in darkness, but the plain daylight of our disinterest. Viewers get a sense of the Hong Kong that was potentially lost in Sue Williams’ Denise Ho: Becoming the Song, which opens virtually today.

Denise Ho is everything the media usually celebrates. She is an immigrant, who moved to Canada with her family in the late 1980s, only to return to Hong Kong, to pursue a career in music. She was the protégé of Anita Mui, who was widely dubbed the HK Madonna for her sexually empowering stage persona. Ho also became the second notable Cantopop celebrity to come out of the closet, following the example of her close friend, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming. So, what was it about the Lesbian artist that was so incompatible with the values of Western corporations like Lancome that they dropped their sponsorship deals? She joined the 2014 Umbrella protests for greater democratic governance in Hong Kong.

Filming in the wake of the 2019 Extradition protests, Williams follows Ho as she takes a more DIY approach to touring. The star who used to perform in stadiums across Mainland China now books smaller, more intimate clubs in Hong Kong and around the world, for the HK diaspora. Of course, for Ho the money is not important. If anything, she has forged a closer connection with her fans.

Williams and editor Emma Morris put on a documentary filmmaking clinic, briskly chronicling Ho’s career and providing context for her activism, while also surveying her music and conveying an intimate sense of her as a person. Viewers will feel like they know her after watching Becoming the Song, which means they will also be deeply concerned for her future well-being.

The Ho that emerges through Williams’ portrait is a charismatic performer and a person of intellectual substance, who easily carries the film. She deserves to enjoy the freedoms of speech and expression this country has steadily devalued, as does Wong and student-activists like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law. Sadly, Becoming the Song probably opens too late to spur protests against the so-called “National Security” law Beijing unilaterally imposed on Hong Kong, completely violating the letter and spirit of the “One Chine Two Systems” arrangement, but it can rally support for meaningful sanctions and “life boat” asylum provisions for Hong Kongers facing likely persecution. Very highly recommended, Denise Ho: Becoming the Song releases virtually today (7/1), via Kino Marquee.

Glory to Hong Kong!