Director Wong Ho-yi has sought to outline the storms unleashed by China’s Cultural Revolution by narrating his own experiences during his time at a “patriotic school” in Hong Kong in the 1970s.
“Red Passage” is the second feature film directed by Wong.
The screenplay was written in 2009. Due to difficulties in funding and getting the right locations for filming, he could complete the movie only in August 2013.
Though Red Passage had been featured in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in October last year, no distributor was willing to launch the film. The reason: It was deemed too sensitive due to the prevailing political tensions in the city.
“The film is unconventional and had no celebrity cast. Besides, it touched upon sensitive topics. No wonder Hong Kong distributors were hesitant,” said Wong.
In fact, even Wong had some doubts about putting his topic on screen.
“When I wrote the script, Hong Kong wasn’t that torn with polarized ideas. I don’t want it to be misunderstood as a tool to promote politics.”
Wong simply wants to tell the audience about the almost forgotten history and people between the 1960s and 1970s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
His experiences were portrayed through the protagonist Chan Wah-keung — a Hong Kong young boy who gets transferred to a patriotic secondary school after his completion of primary education in a British colonial state school.
“I was confused as I couldn’t distinguish whether it was Mainland China or Hong Kong. Outside the school there was one ideology, but inside the school there was another.”
It was a decision made by his father, owing to the latter’s confidence that Hong Kong would be taken back early by Communist China from the British government. Sending his son to a patriotic school was regarded the best way for the boy to get to know the motherland.
“In the morning we had to read Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, cry ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ and sing the song ‘The East Is Red’,” recalls Wong. At school it was mainly about learning Mao’s ideologies and reading mainland Chinese articles about the Cultural Revolution.
The most difficult thing that Wong was forced to bear was doing weekly self-criticism during a special class when students were encouraged to criticize one another.
“You’d better come up with something. In order to show you had applied Mao’s theories well, you had to describe yourself as problematic as possible sentimentally. If you hadn’t said anything, your teachers and classmates would have started criticizing your wrongdoings. It was always better to come up with something by yourself and so people would think you had made progress,” he recalls.
Now, in his latest movie, two proactive girls in the class are the learning role models for the protagonist. Both the girls come from a leftist primary school and know exactly how to play the political game well.
“Wah-keung learns the way to survive from these two girls. Survival depends on your choices. To live is to live like them. Otherwise, you would be alienated. The ending is thought-provoking,” says Wong.
Asked when he was enlightened, Wong says he was in the middle of the rational and the irrational. “When your personality got oppressed, plus you tried to blend in and got rejected, you would then sober up.”
Fortunately Wong’s father decided to transfer his son to a new school when Wong reached the Secondary Three stage.
Wong is determined to tell the reality and struggles of the patriotic students in Red Passage. However, the film was never an easy task.
Wong was able to find a school building only at the last minute for crucial filming. In order to depict it as a government school of that era, Hong Kong’s colonial flag had to be hoisted.
But the school principal wanted the flag to be pulled down quickly as he was worried that mainland tourists would take pictures of colonial symbol and upload it on the Internet.
Meanwhile, some members of the public also complained about possible brain-washing activities in the school as Mao’s slogans were pasted around the campus during the movie shoot.
In the end, all the troubles paid off for Wong. Red Passage was received well by critics and also won the best foreign language film award in the Garifuna Film Festival International in Los Angeles.
“They think this film plays the role of preserving the history, as it is a Cantonese film and touches upon Hong Kong’s colonial issues,” explained Wong.
Wong sympathizes with his fellow classmates, noting that many were genuinely patriotic and sacrificed their futures without getting anything in return.
He hopes that citizens will not view the film in political terms, but instead use it to gain understanding on a unique group of people and their psychological state at that time.
Meanwhile, the search for a local distributor is still on.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 14.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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