Hong Kong: City on Fire review – shocking violence in China’s city of dissent

A new and deeply moving documentary underscores the high price that Hong Kong’s young have paid for their social justice activism

Protesters in Hong Kong: City on Fire.
Streets of rage … protesters in Hong Kong: City on Fire. Photograph: Dartmouth Films

An unflinching chronicle of the pro-democracy protests that sent shock waves through Hong Kong in 2019, Choi Ka Yan and Lee Hiu Ling’s vital, politically urgent documentary witnesses the fight for freedom from the frontline. Dynamically structured around personal testimonials, the film gives voice to the activists who dared to brave the clouds of teargas.

Mounted in response to a highly controversial plan from the Hong Kong government that would allow for extradition to mainland China, the demonstrations escalated in scale after police brutality against peaceful protesters. As well as covering the organising efforts of the mostly college-aged activists, the documentary also highlights how ordinary citizens rallied around the protests. Moments where older citizens offer to feed the young protesters or to drive them home are deeply moving and remind us that the majority of the activists have only just entered adulthood. The same phones on which they play video games are utilised to expose shocking scenes of violence.

The tragedy of the situation is encapsulated by simple juxtaposition of the ordeal suffered by the dissenting students and everyday moments, such as romantic dates or shopping trips. Abandoned by university officials and the Hong Kong government, the students try to carry the responsibility of preserving their future on their shoulders instead of simply enjoying the best years of their lives. At one point, a student breaks down during an assembly at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as his pleas for an official acknowledgment of police cruelty go unheard. As tens of thousands of protesters have been arrested, the end credits give thanks to an enormous amount of unnamed collaborators; it shows the cost of social justice activism.

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