If you expected class distinctions would
vanish in Hong Kong after re-integrating with the Mainland, reality has been
profoundly disappointing. For many, the only significant change is the
undemocratic governance mandated by Beijing. Last fall, thousands of HK
students protested for the right to hold legitimate elections. Simultaneously, a
group of disadvantaged HK high school students discovered potential they never
knew they had when they were selected to stage a professional musical theater
production. Six of their fellow students were also recruited to document their behind-the-scenes
drama. None of them were activists, but their efforts to assert control over lives
and futures takes on unintended symbolic implications in Oscar-winner Ruby Yang’s
My Voice, My Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday
in New York.
In Hong Kong, there is a rigid hierarchy among
secondary schools. Underperforming students at the last chance “Band 3” schools
are often looked down upon by their peers and their elders, but their
employment prospects are still better than those facing graduates of the
Ebenezer School for the Visually Impaired. Of course, the latter students recruited
for the awkwardly named L plus H Creations Foundation’s production of The Awakening (featuring a conspicuously
Les Mis-ish sounding finale) are by
far the most reliable during the early days of rehearsal. There will be a pretty
steep learning curve for the other kids, both musically and personally.
Frankly, it was not always clear whether the
production would really come together. In Coby Wang, they had a lead with all
kinds of natural talent, but her acute lack of confidence prevents her from
realizing her diva potential. More problematic are the troublemakers who
undermine discipline and unity with their antics. Yet, as the rehearsals
progress, the hardest cases start to realize their fellow students are relying
on them to get it together.
Yang (who was last nominated for the short
David-and-Goliath doc, The Warriors of Qiugang) and editor Man Chung Ma are extraordinarily dexterous juggling the
various students’ and their backstories. Viewers really get a fully developed
sense of at least eight or nine of the cast-members, while also meeting an
assortment of parents, teachers, and theater professionals, which is quite an
impressive feat of screen-time management in a ninety-one minute film.
None of these kids are bad per se. Some have
just been living down to low expectations. Fortunately, several are extremely
charismatic, while nobody in their right mind could root against the earnest
Ebenezer students. Clearly, Andy Lau agreed. The HK superstar and former bad
kid saw something of himself in the Awakening
cast-members, so he hit the Hong Kong publicity circuit on the film’s
behalf, making it an unexpected box-office success.
Of course, their
story does not end here, but at least Voice
gives us reason to suspect there is much more to come from its subjects (especially
since they are now so well known to Lau). Frankly, they sort of cry out for the
Seven Up treatment. Regardless, they
deserve a chance to pursue a higher education and real career opportunities.
Likewise, they ought to be able to vote for the politicians of their choice. At
least Yang’s documentary should help with the former. Recommended for
idealistic musical theater fans, My
Voice, My Life opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.
Labels: Documentary, Hong Kong Cinema, Ruby Yang