Part documentary! Part narrative! All vaguely intriguing! This could be the billboard ad for Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, though if one were to advertise for this film, you’d likely lead with the visuals and leave words out of the picture.
It’s no surprise that Hong Kong Trilogy has a striking look, as it is directed by Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born cinematographer who rose to arthouse fame lensing Wong Kar-Wai’s slick, stylized films Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love before working with directors like Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant. While not the first time in the director’s chair (there was a Polish thriller called Warsaw Dark, a chapter in the Paris, Je t’aime anthology and Ai Weiwei’s music video Dumbass, this could be considered his proper auteurist debut. The endeavor, partially funded via Kickstarter, does its best to present the essence of Doyle’s adopted city, and while never boring, the strangeness of its specificity prevents the jigsaw pieces from ever clicking into place. There’s an odd frustration in a movie like this, as flashes of genuine excitement make the filler all the more tiresome. There’s the adage to “always leave them wanting more”, but Doyle’s film takes it way too far.
The trilogy of the title represents three sections. Preschooled is shot in an elementary school, tree-lined and quiet despite its urban environment. We observe some of the kids – like a boy who beatboxes love songs, a pantheistic girl who prays to all of the world’s recognized deities in an effort to save her family and friends, and a quiet boy who likes to hang out with a group of flamingos. (It is unclear just how many Hong Kong schools have their own zoos.) These images are not shot documentary-style. The are carefully framed and edited together using traditional narrative coverage. However, in voiceover, we hear snippets of what sound like lengthy, unrehearsed interviews. Many of these glimpses, particularly of the young girl who lives on a houseboat, are mesmerising.
The second section, Preoccupied, is set against 2014’s democracy protests that were dubbed the umbrella revolution. Some aspects of this section are newsy, like looking into the orderly tent city, its mail-delivery system, its pop-up farms and the supportive tweets from around the world projected against a concrete wall named for John Lennon. There’s also a look at the spontaneously generated economy, like an arts space, which then dovetails into a clearly fictionalized bit of comedy concerning a western beer enthusiast and bar owners. The goal, I would imagine, was something of a replay of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, in which a drama ran right into the Chicago protests of 1968. Doyle’s version is far more clumsy and has none of the urgency. Adding in a shot of childlike special effects doesn’t help much either.
The third chapter, Preposterous, borders on ageism, as it watches senior citizens engage in various socialising exercises. Sure, speed-dating on a tourist tram as a dolled-up “Street Diva” sings songs is a humorous tableau, but the tone comes off as smug and nasty. Characters from the first two sections reappear and all end up at the seaside as we hear vague ruminations about the future of Hong Kong.
Not a sequence in this movie goes by where there isn’t a composition worthy of a high-res Vimeo screengrab, which is, indeed, intended as a compliment. Doyle has a remarkable eye, of that there is no question. He is also a noted rabble-rouser; self-described as the Keith Richards of cinematography. One would think, then, that his movie would have more entertainment value. There’s little of the poetry one can find in Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil or the weirdness of Werner Herzog’s travelogue Fata Morgana, two titles with which Doyle would no doubt love to be compared. Perhaps for his next trick, he’ll work with a screenwriter and produce something greater than a good-looking curiosity.