When student Chun-Man (Yau Hawk-Sau) becomes politicised by Maoist sympathisers and starts participating in protests against British occupation his childhood sweetheart Lai-Wah (Fish Liew) is at a loss to explain why. So too is Wingkuen (Chan Kin-Long), an illegal immigrant who just happened to seek refuge in Chun-Man’s home, only to be corralled back across the border. When violence breaks out, Lai-Wah and admirer Chi-Ho (Lo Chun-Yip) inevitably get caught up in the struggle. Fifty-two years later, with Hong Kong now a special administrative region of mainland China and developers descending on an elderly Wingkuen’s land, he has nowhere left to run. Aided by a new generation of activists, he stands up to the Chinese authorities he has always feared.
Part period piece and part speculative fiction, No. 1 Chung Ying Street seems to suggest that there is no change in sight for Hong Kong’s political strife, with its reflective narrative effectively blurring the line between the anti-colonial labor riots of 1967 and the post-Handover 2014 Umbrella Movement against Chinese interference in local elections, the aftermath of which is explored in future 2019. Political without being partisan, the film instead explores the radicalisation of youth, the repercussions of dissent and the repeated subjugation of Hong Kong’s citizens.
Featuring the same cast across both epochs, the actors playing different but not dissimilar roles in each, Derek Chui insinuates a certain sense of continuation and progression as deceased characters appear to return from the dead and incarcerated characters are finally released from prison, albeit more than fifty years in the future and in the guise of a different person entirely. That these seemingly reincarnated souls are destined to relive the same struggles once more is what gives the film its thematic weight and emotional resonance — and part of what makes it so controversial, too.
Made on a shoestring budget with no promise of distribution, Chui has found ingenious ways not only of saving money but of enhancing its effect. By shooting in black and white and staging the action in a series of enclosed spaces, his exquisite film effortlessly evokes a sense of timeless oppression, while cinematographer Lai Yat-Nam creates a close and claustrophobic atmosphere throughout, Kao Chai-Lun and Fok Tat-Wa’s clammy costumes clinging to the characters and The Interzone Collective’s percussive score refusing to let even the audience relax. The cast, too, are terrific value for money, with Yau Hawk-Sau and Fish Liew making for a very compelling couple, particularly during the 1967 era.
Unfortunately, the film’s unusual structure and somewhat esoteric subject rather undermine the second half, which never quite overcomes the initial confusion caused by the change in context or the disappointment that comes with leaving such compelling character behind, even if the actors duly remain. This shift feels both premature and overdue, the second section feeling more like a protracted postscript than a story in its own right — less satisfying, less defined, less clear. But then perhaps that’s the point: it is, after all, an echo.