THE IDEA of capturing people in history has always been a tempting thought, if not the ultimate goal, for some filmmakers. That said, the aesthetic challenge of making a film about the July 1, 1997, British Handover of Hong Kong to China seems daunting. After all, it happened in front of 6,000 journalists from all over the world. For about 3 months, Hong Kong was exhaustively covered, consumed and, one may say, discarded. Hasn't the Handover been quickly overshadowed by the sensational deaths of Giavanni Versace and Princess Diana in the mega-media event annals of 1997?
The popular sentiment now is that nothing has changed in Hong Kong, as though drastic changes could happen overnight! The sense of anti-climax lingers. Can this really be the event that has triggered some of the most highly publicised waves of Chinese diaspora in recent decades?
Some time in 1996, Rocco Lam Yuet-man, my assistant director from To Liv(e), who has since moved on to other fields, told me about the "Walk to Beijing" campaign he was organizing. An idea clicked. Rather than the urge and movement away from China as depicted in my two previous (feature) films, this was an event that moved toward China. At some point, it dawned on me that these walkers were playing out in 4 months, physically, what had been going on inexorably for 150 years -- Hong Kong's political and historical journey toward Beijing, i.e. China, ever since the metropolis's infamous founding as a colony ceded to Britain during the Opium Wars.
For me, the HK-Beijing Walk is both the subject and a meta-subject of Journey to Beijing, which, in a sense, is a film essay. It affirms, reflects on, and questions the pull of national and cultural (Chinese) identity, as the walkers pass through Guangzhou (when Deng Xiao Ping dies), the Yellow River (supposedly the source of Chinese civilization), Mao's birthplace, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. The Walk has provided the framework -- geographically, temporally and politically -- for an examination of the interaction between Hong Kong and China and the various attitudes expressed toward reunification during the final days of the Crown Colony.
Ultimately Journey is about people in time -- the Walk also appears to be a quest for meaning, viz., for cultural roots, for the collective good and for personal monuments as one journeys through life. Eric Hobsbawm observed that the 20th century only spanned between 1914 and 1989. Hence Hong Kong's reunification with China, in effect, took place in that interregnum (between two millenia), which according to Antonio Gramsci, is ripe for "a great diversity of morbid symptoms" because "the old is dying and the new cannot be born..." If Journey to Beijing cannot to justice to the momentous import of HK's decolonization, at least, I hope, it can attest to the simple (some may even view as native) humanity of the HK to Beijing walkers.
-- Evans Chan