Pseudo-Secular: The zeitgeist film of Hong Kong’s protest movements

Photo: Pseudo-Secular.
Watching the film today is a conflict-ridden experience that offers no conclusions and little solace.

I ’ll soon be going back in. Yes, going back in. When my cellmates heard me they asked if I’d gone crazy… But I’d just be going into another prison. Our lives are spent travelling from prison to prison.”

For many Hong Kongers, the era before the Umbrella Movement is a distant memory, a time before the city’s political paradigm was changed irrevocably. Set against the backdrop of the 2011 (not 2014) Occupy Central—the local incarnation of the worldwide anti-capitalism protests—Pseudo-Secular 風景 evokes not only the familiar themes of failure and frustration, but also nostalgia for the “better days” of street movements. First conceived by director Rita Hui five years ago, the film has been outpaced by real-life events as the city becomes ever more authoritarian. Leung Wing-lai, who appears in the film as a participant of the movement, is currently in prison.

Despite depicting real protests, the crowdfunded indie film is mostly a work of fiction, providing glimpses into the helplessness felt by a handful of ordinary characters towards their circumstances. The overarching narrative consists of letters sent by jailed activist Ah Yi to boyfriend Tai Cho, a disillusioned figure who is unable to pick up the courage to visit her. Ah Yi’s escapist parents also abandon her, and as a result, she is reduced to monologues and emotional breakdowns throughout the film.

Photo: Pseudo-Secular.

There is no discernible focal point in Pseudo-Secular, and not an ounce of heroism from its characters. Every viewer will relate to a different story, but not all stories intersect. Business heir Maxim feels contempt in seeing his family’s success fetishised as an example of the “Hong Kong spirit”, elderly locals recall their post-war struggles over the course of interviews conducted by journalist Ah Man, and shoppers ridicule mainland immigrant Li Mi’s accented Cantonese.

The film is not a documentary of the conservation and anti-inequality movements—like the protests against the demolition of Queen’s Pier—that began setting the city’s agenda a decade ago. There is no clear, coherent chronology of events. The doctrines underlying Occupy 2011 are presented through almost academic re-enactments of the participants’ nightly philosophical discussions, interspersed between narratives.

Likewise, Pseudo-Secular‘s political storylines often lead nowhere. The clearing of the Occupy camps beneath the HSBC Building takes place with unexpected brevity, after which everyone carries on with their daily lives. Only a few lines are spared for the student protests against national education and the land requisitions in Kwu Tung—after all, to many Hong Kongers these were nothing but flashes of news headlines.

As the hours pass, viewers inevitably become taken in by the film’s bleak scenery. A grey haze dominates the film’s entire 176-minute duration. Silence, repetition and long stills are punctuated by the hypnotic and dissonant music of Wong Hin-yan, which climaxes towards the very end. But also weaved into the production are shots of real street movements, including fictional scenes shot at actual protests—a detail that sees Pseudo-Secular outclass, on a technical level, any mainstream movie relying on an overdose of graphics and re-enactments.

Since its completion last year, Pseudo-Secular has only been screened at small-scale independent events, while participants in the production will soon release their memoirs and documentary materials in book form. Watching the film today, though, is a conflict-ridden experience that offers no conclusions and little solace.

Can it still prompt its viewers to re-examine their roles in society, as director Hui might have intended? Or does it simply capture and preserve the zeitgeist of the early 2010s as if it were an artefact in a museum, gathering dust as Hong Kongers continue their retreat from public life?

Pseudo-Secular’s next screening and book launch will take place at 7:45pm on 14 December at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The film is subtitled in Chinese and English.