Crossing Borders5 min read

Cameron White reviews The Crossing, a new film of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has reached boiling point. In June and early July, millions of young residents took to the streets, protesting a proposed law that would allow extraditions to mainland China. They say the change would undermine One Country, Two Systems, the doctrine supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of freedom in an otherwise authoritarian country.

One Country, Two Systems was first proposed by Deng Xiaoping as a theoretical model for merging mainland China and Taiwan. The vision: separate legal and economic frameworks could allow disparate regions to coexist within a single, unified China. While never implemented in the context of Taiwan, the model was used to reintegrate Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, perceived violations of that arrangement have been at the heart of nearly every major public demonstration in Hong Kong, including the 2003 protest against national security legislation, the 2012 protest against national education, the 2014 protests against Beijing’s proposed election reform package, and the 2019 protests against the extradition law.

One Country, Two Systems might be at the heart of political confrontations downtown, but it is a banal constant in another corner of the city: the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Every day, tens of thousands of people go back and forth, their bodies flowing through two rounds of immigration clearance all while staying in the same country. It can feel like meaningless bureaucracy to the harried traveler, but to the skilled artist or smuggler, it offers a challenge. That much is apparent in The Crossing (过春天), the debut feature from Shenzhen director Bai Xue. Focused on the issue of cross-border smuggling, the film offers a fresh angle of the messy overlap between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The story follows 16-year-old Peipei, one of the thousands of cross-border students who commute daily from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. Her parents are divorced, their respective situations offering a welcome rebuttal to outmoded stereotypes of rich Hongkongers versus their poor cousins to the north. Peipei’s dad works blistering hours at the docks in Hong Kong, while her mainland mom is the more comfortable of the two, hosting mahjong parties late into the night and stashing her winnings in a drawer.

Peipei applies for a part-time job in Hong Kong to earn money for a dream trip to Japan, only to find the wages dismally low. It’s a moment of stark reality, reflecting life in the trenches of one of the least equal economies in the world. When Peipei receives a hefty commission after being unwittingly deputized into carrying a stack of iPhones over to Shenzhen, Japan suddenly feels obtainable. She is enlisted in a gang of smugglers for repeat missions.

A sense of absurdity adds to each successive crossing. Peipei suggests that the other smugglers dress in Hong Kong school uniforms in order to avoid suspicion, setting up for a humorous montage. There’s also an oddly sensuous scene where two characters tape chains of iPhones to each other’s bodies (perhaps based on real events) so they can meet a particularly large order. Underwriting the action is the entrepreneurial reality of One Country, Two Systems: on both sides of the border, people are trying to make money off of it.

Elements beyond the plot, such as language, emphasize a sense of contradiction in Peipei’s life. Cantonese is the lingua franca of Hong Kong, whereas most mainland Chinese speak Mandarin. Peipei is able to fluidly switch between the two, given her upbringing. Yet at one point, Peipei runs into a family friend and her son crossing back to Shenzhen. Peipei and the woman converse in Cantonese, until the young son grumbles, “We aren’t in Hong Kong anymore, why are we speaking Cantonese?” Over to Mandarin they go.

While a seemingly innocuous scene, it becomes more meaningful with context. Many mainlanders who visit Hong Kong report issues of discrimination at the hands of locals, while Hong Kong residents accuse mainlanders of driving up housing prices and hogging social services. Over time, Cantonese has become the de facto litmus test for local Hong Kong identity. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine a hypothetical scene of that same boy’s mother asking him to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong just to blend in. But when he asks to switch back to Mandarin, he’s trying to keep up with the parallel sets of rules.

Peipei’s identity as a cross-border student is similarly evocative. Hong Kong’s education system has long been admired by mainland families, known for its quality and the doors it opens to foreign universities. At one point in time, mainland mothers went through elaborate means to give birth in Hong Kong, insuring residency and education rights for their children, until the Hong Kong government passed a 2012 law preventing hospitals from accepting mainland maternity patients without a Hong Kong spouse – effectively staving off further increases in cross-border students.

While Peipei would never have been affected by such a policy because of her father, students like her are a suspect class in the eyes of the Hong Kong public. Peipei seems hesitant to discuss her residency situation until she meets the smugglers, who say it’s valuable. What Peipei doesn’t understand is that it’s a value they want to exploit.

This being a film produced in mainland Chinese, it legally cannot portray crime onscreen without eventually showing the perpetrators brought to justice. It’s therefore no spoiler to reveal that Peipei and her compatriots are eventually caught. What’s unfortunate is that police intervention arrives at a moment of high drama, neutralizing multiple interpersonal conflicts in seconds. The moment carries a tinge of deus ex machina (just how the Chinese censors like it), and minutes later, text on screen tells the audience of increases in cross-border inspections, as if to say: Don’t try this at home.

It’s tempting to imagine what further lengths Peipei would have been pushed to had The Crossing been produced under different legal circumstances. Yet that would be a fool’s errand. The Crossing is very much the product of a specific border, and a specific production environment. The fact that its conclusion rings false is all the more appropriate. Under One Country, Two Systems, definitive resolution is the exception, not the rule. ∎

The Crossing, dir. Bai Xue (2019).