Recreating scenes of old Hong Kong is hard enough at the best of times, and these days adding sensitive political content makes production even tougher. That’s just the challenge director Derek Chiu faced in getting his bold passion project No. 1 Chung Ying Street to the big screen.
Staged in two eras, the low-budget picture shows the turmoil of the city’s 1967 leftist riots, then jumps to 2019 for future protest scenes. The 1967 story centres on Lai-wah (Fish Liew) and Chun-man (Yau Hawk-sau), two friends from the border village of Sha Tau Kok. She’s in an elite college and hanging out with Westernised pals like rich kid Chi-ho (Lo Chun-yip), while Chun-man attends a pro-Beijing left-wing school plastered with revolutionary slogans and with teachers denouncing British rule. After a factory dispute hits the news, a struggle committee is set up in the leftist camp to fight for workers’ rights and whip up anti-government sentiment, and students like Chun-man join in. When Chun-man gets involved in a deadly clash and more, the progressive Lai-wah is drawn in deep as well.
The three lead actors also appear in the 2019 story, which begins as young activist Sze-wai (Liew) is released from jail. Her friend Yee-hong (Yau) is a social movement leader, and together with another friend (Lo) they try to stop farmland being wiped out for property development.
The 1967 riots were a dark chapter in Hong Kong – an ugly spillover from the Cultural Revolution that claimed 51 lives (including children killed by bombs laid by leftists) and led to 1,936 convictions. Controversy still surrounds the topic, with it barely taught and opinions split on those who took part. Mainstream filmmakers have referenced the riots, yet none until Derek Chiu decided to go all-out to depict the situation and consider its legacy. Chiu neatly captures how people were drawn in through schools and unions or incited by pro-Beijing newspapers, as well as shifts in public opinion. And he recreates the bizarre sight of Hong Kong people chanting communist slogans, holding up Mao portraits and brandishing little red books.
Chiu turns to the bigger picture in 2019 scenes and even speaks to today’s young activists – many dejected by perceived failure of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. The modern-day sequences reference past policy changes that addressed the genuine grievances of 1967, and provide a strong message that even if protest action seems futile, good may still come about. On the downside, some of the 2019 drama can feel weak compared to the remarkable material earlier on.
Chiu took up the project in 2010 and researched extensively, but work slowed as he struggled to find investors and actors who would accept politically risky material – even with the script’s moderate approach drawing parallels among the two eras’ young protesters and avoiding hot-button protest topics in 2019 scenes. Ultimately, promising young stars Fish Liew and Yau Hawk Sau and other less well-known players gave their support. Severe budget constraint then called for workarounds in the shoot. Filmmakers with the resources look outside highly modern Hong Kong to stage historical scenes in huge studio sets and other locations, but Chiu instead made good use of tight shots and black and white to be more forgiving visually.
The next challenge is securing a local release for No. 1 Chung Ying Street, amid concerns that cinemas are avoiding political hot potatoes – especially after the controversy surrounding Ten Years (2015). The film’s Grand Prix win for best picture at the Osaka Asian Film Festival this March and further festival play should help drum up interest, but it’s still unclear how Chiu’s labour of love will find the support it deserves at home.
Born in Hong Kong in 1961, Derek Chiu Sung-kee studied foreign languages and literature at National Taiwan University. After returning to Hong Kong he worked in TV, first as a production assistant and then becoming a director. He directed his first film with Pink Bomb (1992), and followed it up with works including the acclaimed cop drama The Log (1996) and a trio of pictures for the Milkyway Image film company. In the 2000s Chiu has looked to both the Hong Kong and mainland market with his directorial works, produced the acclaimed Mad World (2016) and In Your Dreams (2017) from new talent, and joined the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media as an Assistant Professor.
1993 – Pink Bomb
1996 – The Log
1997 – Final Justice
1999 – Sealed with a Kiss
2000 – Comeuppance
2001 – Love au Zen
2007 – Brothers
2010 – The Road Less Traveled
2011 – 72 Martyrs
2018 – No. 1 Chung Ying Street