The fiery resolve of the Hong Kong people blazes furiously in James Leong and Lyn Lee’s brutal documentary.
“Hong Kongers! Add oil!“
In 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced the Hong Kong Extradition Bill, which would see Hong Kongers get sent to the mainland to be tried under Chinese law. This announcement marked a tipping point for many Hong Kongers, who could tolerate China’s oppressive thumb no longer, and so began the largest and longest protests the country has ever seen. Having only been a witness to these events through word of mouth and news reports, my knowledge of the demonstrations were limited at best, restricted to what could be shown on TV and reduced to bite sized snippets.
Enter James Leong and Lynn Lee, whose most recent film is everything the news reports aren’t: an in depth, unfiltered look at the million-man marches, the lack of government action from it that led to the occupation of the Legislative Council, and the police violence that resulted in tense, violent stand offs with inexperienced students defending their campuses. If We Burn looks at the escalation of the conflicts, and is one of the most striking and harrowing documentaries covering the protests I’ve seen.
One of the biggest issues facing documentary filmmakers must be in how they present their films. Stories about struggles and injustices are always at a disadvantage when shown to people sitting comfortably in reclining seats, enjoying periods of comparative peace. Leong, Lee and their small team of videographers are able to use the medium to their advantage, offering people an intimate, front-lines look at these events that are as close to realism as you can get without actually having been there. They’ve made a movie that’s infinitely more gruelling than anything a studio, cinematographers and writers could have ever put together.
It’s worth getting the enormous elephant out of the room too: If We Burn is a monstrously long film clocking in at 265 minutes and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel long. What’s astounding, and both a testament to the level in which the film grabs you is in how I was never bored watching If We Burn. This is something some films that are a third of this film’s length can’t even manage. Full half-hour segments can go by in a flash as you find yourself in the middle of the action, tensely watching the Yuen Long attacks or the assault on CUHK.
If We Burn is not easy viewing, and it’s not meant to be. Lee and Leong showcase as much footage as possible, in its most raw form and while it naturally has an agenda, it’s not twisted or forced through manipulative narration or sly editing. There are times when the actions of the Hong Kongers are highly questionable: their brutal treatment of a Mainlander suspected of being Chinese police is pretty awful, even if you understand why they did it. If We Burn shows us what happened, but more importantly adds a lot of context allowing an audience who wasn’t present to understand why things ended up the way they did. As such, it tells its story marvellously, guiding the audience through this rapidly descending journey into hell.
Despite its length, this is a film that should be seen in its entirety at once (15 minute interval notwithstanding). The camera crew does a phenomenal job capturing the entire affair, and showcasing it in a way that makes you feel the escalation, the desperation and the increasing danger as months pass. The impact wouldn’t have been the same split up into television episodes. As the final few minutes roll around, you find yourself thinking back to the peaceful protests of June 2019, the negotiations with the police – and despite it having been only a few hours – start to feel a sense of nostalgia for those less violent, volatile times. Almost like you have been there.
In the end, If We Burn is not for everyone. Far from it. But those who are looking for something that shows the grit, the grim determination and the dogged pursuit of justice from the Hong Kong people, it does what it does phenomenally well. The news might have shown the flames, but the story is all about the kindling.
Verdict: Loaded with heart-wrenching and terrifying real-life moments, If We Burn is an incredible, powerful film that shows what happens when a people refuses to give in to oppression.
Overall entertainment: 10/10.
Violence: 10/10 for just how, well, real it is
Umbrellas: About a million. Actually probably more.
If We Burn (2023)
Also known as: If We Burn (血在燒, 2023)
Directors: James Leong, Lynn Lee
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