Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower review – a Hong Kong schoolboy takes the fight to China

A rousing documentary profiles Joshua Wong, the adolescent activist who found fame with his protests against the Chinese government

The Joshua of the title is Joshua Wong, an unassuming Hong Kong schoolboy who decided to pick a fight with the next global superpower, and won, at least initially. In 2011 14-year-old Wong and his Scholarism movement managed to defeat an effort to make China’s communist National Education curriculum mandatory in Hong Kong schools through the power of peaceful protest. It was the first victory an activist group managed in the territory since it came under Chinese rule in 1997, when Wong was a year old.

If Wong had cashed his chips in there and then his story might have made for a pleasing if fairly minor documentary. But, as this absorbing new Netflix film shows, he instead got involved in a far more significant battle: over the democratic future of Hong Kong itself.

In 2014 Scholarism became part of the wider Umbrella movement, the Occupy-style group set up to protest a refusal by China to allow Hong Kong to elect their own leaders. Officially the country is afforded a relaxed position within the One China policy, permitted to maintain its present capitalist form for 50 years as part of the handover deal made between China and the UK. Yet, there has been a perceived ratcheting up of influence by Beijing in recent times, prompting a more robust response from those opposed to China’s control, particularly from younger citizens like Wong who see Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy as central to their identity.

Joshua Wong
Joshua Wong Photograph: Netflix

Teenager vs Superpower does a solid job of contextualising this larger ideological battle, with talking heads and archive footage, but it’s always clear that the focus here is Wong. He’s a remarkable figure perhaps because, on the surface he seems so unremarkable - a gawky teen in oversized clothes from a lower-middle class background who nevertheless manages to rouse people with his energy and plain speaking. His ‘wunderkind’ status helps too of course – one commentator here compares him with Joan of Arc for his ability to enter a complex adult conflict and resolve it with youthful simplicity.

While Teenager vs. Superpower is often as in thrall to Wong as his followers, director Joe Piscatella does also allow for some dissenting voices who see Wong’s celebrity presence as detrimental to the larger movement. One accuses him of hijacking the protests and there’s a sense that his adolescent impetuousness might cost him dearly in the end. Rallying cries like “it’s time for total war” are unlikely to be received warmly by those in Beijing, and Joshua is aware of the parlous situation he’s created for himself when, at one point in the documentary he notes, “I can’t ensure I will not be disappeared in the future.”

For the time being China seem to be adopting a softly softly approach to Wong and indeed the larger protest movement inside Hong Kong. As the documentary progresses – and it’s worth issuing a spoiler warning here for those who don’t want to be broadsided by details of widely reported real-life events – we see the Umbrella Protests falter and ultimately fail, not because of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown, but as a result of apathy and fatigue on the part of its participants. Even a hunger strike by Wong, when his camp is finally dismantled by police, isn’t enough to reinvigorate the movement. Ultimately, even Scholarism feels forced to call it a day.

That would of course make for a pretty downbeat coda to an otherwise rousing documentary – not to mention wildly out of character from Wong – and encouragingly things end with him and several other members of Scholarism forming a new political entity, Demonsisto, and plotting to run for political office. The fight. for Hong Kong’s future is far from over, and it seems that Joshua is going to be a major player in it.


Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cockroach review – Ai Weiwei's spectacular portrait of Hong Kong protests
Pro-democracy activists and police clash on the streets, captured vividly in this daring, dynamic and visually stunning documentary

Peter Bradshaw

18, Dec, 2020 @5:01 AM

Article image
Hong Kong: City on Fire review – shocking violence in China’s city of dissent
A new and deeply moving documentary underscores the high price that Hong Kong’s young have paid for their social justice activism

Phuong Le

22, Nov, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
'They are willing to sacrifice everything': Ai Weiwei pays tribute to the Hong Kong protesters
The artist’s documentary, Cockroach, tells the inside story of the 2019 demonstrations against mainland China’s brutal clampdown – a tough task when he’s not allowed to return

Stuart Jeffries

18, Dec, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Ivory Game review – timely account of elephants' death throes
The ivory trade has been legitimised and stimulated, leading, as this angry, valuable documentary shows, to the near extinction of a species

Peter Bradshaw

31, Oct, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Everything Under Control review – endearing gangster mashup from Hong Kong
Comedy caper deserves credit for fighting the corner of the city’s cinema in the face of the mainland film behemoth

Phil Hoad

21, Jan, 2023 @3:47 PM

Article image
Over My Dead Body review – corpse comedy takes on Hong Kong property market
Goofy story about the residents of a ritzy apartment block racing to get rid of a murder victim

Leaf Arbuthnot

22, Apr, 2023 @12:53 PM

Article image
Eyewitness: Hong Kong, China
Photographs from the Guardian Eyewitness series

06, Apr, 2014 @1:43 PM

Article image
Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous review – easy on the eye yet lacking poetry
Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle takes the adage ‘always leave them wanting more’ too far in this clumsy narrative documentary about his adopted hometown

Jordan Hoffman

11, Sep, 2015 @11:01 PM

Article image
Hong Kong, China and democracy| @guardianletters
Letter: The Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 made no mention of universal suffrage

09, Sep, 2014 @7:43 PM

Article image
Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong review – a young life of protest in Hong Kong
A memoir and fervent call to arms from a key leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, written with Jason Y Ng

Julia Lovell

22, Feb, 2020 @9:01 AM