Yvonne Yevan Yu watches Last Exit to Kai Tak
Edward Lau Wai-tak runs up the back stairway of a government building, followed by a team of supporters. He tries one locked door, then another. As a district council candidate, he’s there to demand a meeting with officials, whom he says are evading their appointment. He curses at them, puts his weight on a door handle, and it opens. “Go through here,” he says urgently.
With elections only a few months away, Lau and his team are protesting the cutting down of four century-old banyan trees on Bonham Road in Sai Wan district, Ed Lau’s would-be constituency. Growing out of stone walls, anchored by sprawling roots, the trees are a local marvel. But when earlier we see Lau, a businessman-turned-politician, standing in front of the stumps with a megaphone and a rallying cry, one can’t help but feel an incongruity with his platform, that he is campaigning on an outsized sense of proportion. But it’s not just about the trees.
Last Exit to Kai Tak is Matthew Torne’s third documentary on Hong Kong. As it progresses, so does our realization that Lau, and the other four main characters in the film, are in fact fighting proxy wars. We follow Denise Ho Wan-sze, a well-established Cantopop singer who has left the comfortable success of her record company to work as an independent artist; Derek Lam Shun-hin, a theology student and political activist unable to find employment; Wong Yeung Tat, screenwriter, activist, and such a media personality that he is taking an argument with a pro-Beijing political opponent into the realm of the literal, in the form of a boxing match; and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, arguably the poster child of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, captured here on a world tour to stops like Washington, D.C. and Oxford, and during meetings with his political party Demosistō, where fellow co-founder Nathan Law Kwun-chung is running for a seat on the Legislative Council. All five are in favor of democratic reform in Hong Kong, but they disagree on what self-determination looks like, and how to get there.
If Torne’s directorial debut, Lessons on Dissent (2014), which looks at the mass demonstrations against the Moral and National Education curriculum, encapsulates the hopeful possibilities of political activism in Hong Kong, and Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017) the development of that energy and tension, culminating in the months-long Umbrella Movement, then Last Exit to Kai Tak is a portrait of the struggles turning inward in the post-Umbrella era. The question for these characters becomes whether to stay or to leave. “Revolution or emigration?” a companion asks Derek Lam, as they look at the skyline of their home city. His friend continues, “I’m an asshole; I’m always thinking of leaving.” And if they choose to stay, they must articulate for themselves what it means to fight for Hong Kong. Instead of stationary talking-head interviews, cinematographer Jonathan Lele Young chooses to follow the film’s subjects with a handheld camera, often opting for a fly-on-the-wall angle, creating a persistent feeling of restlessness.
The Chinese Communist Party is rarely referred to explicitly in the film, but its presence is palpable. It is understood that Denise Ho parted ways with her record company because of her outspoken pro-democracy views. We see her preparing for a concert series titled “Dear Friend” – a reference to Mohandas Gandhi’s letters to Hitler – at the Hong Kong Coliseum, the apex of arenas for any local performer. A government-managed space, Ho applied to perform there five times after she turned independent, each request rejected until now. Derek Lam, in search of a job, calls his old employer, a McDonald’s he used to manage, where he was awarded employee of the month. They tell him that there’s nothing they can do, and again, it’s implied that his political activity is the cause. He goes to Ed Lau to pitch a project, which Lau is to fund: to create a quintessential craft beer that’s “Made In Hong Kong.” They visit a brewer to work on a flavor profile that might suit local taste buds (hoppy, with notes of grapefruit). In a land where one’s democratic freedoms are limited, the ability to choose becomes both riskier and more restrictive.
This tension between representation and self-determination, ever present in debates about democracy, is a ley line throughout the film. Joshua Wong’s go-to laugh-line in interviews is that pro-Beijing news outlets claim he’s a CIA-trained spy. When Wong Yeung Tat, after much peacocking to promote the boxing match, finally dances out to the ring, he declares to his cheering supporters that he’d already won, because his challenger Shek Fong-yau hasn’t come. The crowd then finds Shek amongst the audience. Shek asks for a mic. Wong refuses and talks over him, calling him a coward. Eventually Shek leaves the hall to jeers.
Torne does not showcase the points of view of pro-establishment members, stating in interviews that they refused to talk to him. On the other side of Hong Kong, Ed Lau speaks in a cut-glass British accent, and wears a remembrance poppy on his lapel when he campaigns. All of the profiled characters are public figures, some more than others, and the film is at its most moving when we see them during their most private moments: Denise Ho practicing her vocal runs, Wong Yeung Tat learning how to properly wear a mouthguard, Joshua Wong shedding a tear while listening to Nathan Law speak onstage, the constant nonchalant cursing.
At the same time, the present is a weight that hangs over every scene. Nathan Law gets elected, but as he acknowledges his victory on screen, the audience knows how it ends: he will be disqualified a few months later for altering his oath of allegiance during the swearing-in ceremony. Joshua Wong, Law, and Derek Lam face, or will have served, sentences for their involvement in the 2014 protests. Candidates who are considered by the city government to be running on various platforms of democratic self-determination or independence are banned from elections.
The title of the film is inspired by a novel Torne read during production, Last Exit to Brooklyn. He was driving around the area where Kai Tak, the old airport, used to be, and was struck by the onramps that used to connect to the terminals, still there, but now leading nowhere. This is a film about people who’ve chosen to stay, even as Beijing enfolds Hong Kong into “one China.” “I can’t not carry on,” says Wong Yeung Tat, when asked about his radicalization. “And I can’t go back.” During the post-screening Q&A at the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture on October 1, an audience member asked Torne where he thought the future of Hong Kong was headed. Torne answered that the film was looking at the “bitter aftermath” of what had happened. “But what do you think of it personally,” she insisted. Lacking access to self-determination, perhaps she was looking for an authorial answer. ∎