Film Review: If We Burn (2020)

The civil unrest in Hong Kong has been a relatively prominent news fixture for the last two years. What catalysed the unrest was a proposed law allowing for Hong Kong people to be extradited to China, supposedly compromising the autonomy of Hong Kong and the standing ‘one-country, two-systems’ framework. 


As with cold coffee, the news items that initially keep us glued to our screens for days and weeks on end tend to fade from focus after a while, and our attention would move on to the next hot topic. It is hence perhaps an opportune time for James Leong and Lynn Lee's If We Burn to be released, to remind us of the severe and possibly hopeless situation faced by the student revolutionaries in Hong Kong. 

One question that runs throughout the film is of course that of civil disobedience, and also if there’s ever a ‘right’ way to make change. Are we protestors who storm and occupy the Legislative Council for a higher purpose? Or are we mere rioters whose aim is to only destroy cause as much damage as possible? To that end, does it even matter? Who will judge you to be either? This conundrum is raised repeatedly in the film. 


At its heart, If We Burn is a universal story about human perseverance in the face of extreme adversity. A traditional David and Goliath tale, it is masterfully crafted against a backdrop of modern-day politics and student activism in Hong Kong. It is a classic retelling of youthful idealism and exuberance in a fight against the establishment, and the film sweeps you right up with it. 

The sheer drama of the documentary will keep you riveted. It takes you on a roller coaster ride of raw and genuine emotions, made all the more powerful and real by the fact that nothing is scripted. Beginning with the powerful defiance and anger at the start of the protests, If We Burn leads you through the confusion and desperate solidarity as the events unfold, displaying the people's real fears of death, and death without significance. 


Since the events depicted in the film, the extradition bill has been withdrawn but hundreds of student protesters were arrested. What will become of them? What will become of Hong Kong? It has been 23 years since Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese. How much longer can we expect ‘one-country, two-systems’ to last? In the larger geopolitical landscape, does Hong Kong even matter anymore? What was once probably the best entry point to the Chinese economy may now have faded into insignificance and been replaced by other more prominent Chinese cities. 


Though the film is raw and at parts unpolished, it is a masterful piece told without rose-tinted glasses. This film succeeds in raising many politically charged questions. When your leaders have failed you and the establishment has failed you, what do you do? Do you take matters into your hands? How do you fight the system? Are the authorities and the various organs of state truly the ‘bad guys’? What is, or is there even, a right way to stage a revolution? 

Instead of pontificating over what should and should not be, the film leaves you thinking. In the final analysis, perhaps the most pertinent question this film raises is to question what you, a mere passive face in the audience, would have done in the same circumstances. Perhaps exactly what the Hong Kong students did...

Written by Chan Hoe. This film is currently a work in progress, and recently won the Next Award at the 2020 DMZ International Documentary Film Festival.

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