Deep in the heart of Hong Kong
Local editor's "Citizen' is history as home movie

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

The world of Ruby Yang is not "The World of Suzie Wong."

Back in the '50s, when colonizers ruled the harbor and Hollywood set the image, Hong Kong was a film setting for kind-hearted hookers and barefoot kids on sampans. Then the world discovered a brash native movie industry that mirrored the breakneck pace of life through back-alley gangster action and modernized ghost tales. But Yang, one of San Francisco's most experienced editors, has returned home to bring forth a new and refreshingly humanist view of the creature she names and titles

"Citizen Hong Kong." (The film will close the 17th annual Asian American Film Festival Thursday night.)

Like Wayne Wang, who studied art in Oakland while his future collaborator in the editing room graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, Yang was moved to reconsider her relationship to the enclave where she was raised because of the impending end of British rule. Frustrated by the lack of dramatic unrest during the 1997 handover, Wang would make his "Chinese Box" a fictional tale of misguided love told largely from an outsider's view.

On the other hand, Yang - who once wanted to make visual

"tone poems" like her heroes, the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and James Broughton - has attempted to get deep inside Hong Kong life in her first full-length documentary.

"I wanted to do a more political film, but I knew that not much turmoil would happen. I had a feeling that change there will come very gradually. So I left the politics in the subtext."

Instead, she interviewed students at high schools and combed the unending shopping malls for five archetypal characters who could tell their own tales through interviews and self-constructed "video diaries."

At the outset of her three-year project, Yang knew that she wanted to follow "a new immigrant, a typical Hong Kong person, a news reporter, a returnee who wasn't British or American."

Aided by producer Lambert Yam, Yang's husband and a long-time distributor of Hong Kong films who once ran Chinatown's World Theatre, she managed to land all the above in the persons of Qi Ke Jia, a mainlander pushed through Hong Kong's competitive school system by a sacrificing mother; Ed Wu, a misfit younger son, first encountered by Yang in his role as a salesman of CDs, who lives through his obsessive collecting of pop artifacts and Japanese animation; Louise Wong, an Aussie

"banana" - yellow on the outside, white on the inside - who comes back to find her roots; and Edward and Edwin Chan, deaf brothers who work in an office by day and perform in an improvisatory theater company by night.

"Their deafness was a perfect metaphor for Hong Kong people's lack of political voice, and the way they create their own language, as well as their ability to move on and make the best of difficult situations, to never look back," says Yang of the silent subjects who are the most compelling of her "citizens." She considers the collector Wu "also a very typical Hong Kong person, more interested in his own world than politics." Going beyond any happenings of the moment, student Qi Ke's compulsive push for advancement through education and reporter Louise's belated honoring of dying ancestors could serve as a primer of basic Chinese values.

Enlivening the world premiere of "Citizen Hong Kong" will be the appearance of all the main protagonists - except for student Jiang, whose mother, Yang admits,

"always thought of the film as a big distraction from her daughter's studies" - who will just have seen themselves on screen for the first time.

The filmmaker does not anticipate any adverse reactions to some revealing moments of soul-searching. "During the handover, the mood was very different," Yang observes. "There was this euphoria, where people were willing to be more open and reflective. They became very aware of questions about their identity."

In this sense, the events of 1997 aided Yang, who notes,

"Chinese people tend to be very shy on camera." This includes the director herself, who had to be coaxed by collaborators into making her own family history a linchpin of the structure for "Citizen." It's ironic, since but for providing an opportunity to see some rare historical footage, Yang's rather general reminiscences become interruptions in the very inimate peeks at the contemporary Hong Kongers' cramped circumstances.

Drawing on her prior work with directors like Wang, Carroll Ballard, Peter Kaufman and Spencer Nakasako, Yang's effort is strongest in its editing - which has produced that rare documentary where voice and image match with haunting precision. "Since this was my own film, I held myself to a higher standard," says the editor, who admits it was more difficult to make objective choices about her own footage - especially when reducing 300 hours to 90 minutes.

The result is history as home movie, a collective portrait of what Yang calls "the people who must change themselves if Hong Kong is to change itself."

"Citizen Hong Kong" will screen Thursday, 7 p.m., at the Asian American Film Festival's closing-night gala at the Kabuki Theatre. Gala screening, $15; screening and gala reception, $35 (includes preferred seating at the screening). (415) 255-4299.<

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