Taking the form of the subgenre of the backstage musical, documentarian Ruby Yang follows a group of high school students, school administrators, and music faculty in Hong Kong as they prepare a musical show. Not surprisingly, the path that leads to the end-of-summer performance is anything but smooth or easy. Lest one think that the film is merely a documentary version of something like Disney’s High School Musical series, however, the students in question are from ‘Band 3’ schools, which take on those who have either learning difficulties or lower grades and are therefore regarded as of inferior quality, and also from schools of the visually impaired. While the documentary is rather mundane in form, it nevertheless presents a rich tapestry of experiences – witnessed and voiced – significant for being not as often represented in mainstream media (including films) in Hong Kong as one would like. As Yang follows this eclectic musical troupe in the making, the musical subtly becomes a point of entry to address a range of sociocultural issues specific to Hong Kong in an intimate, unadorned way: class, hierarchy, discrimination, familial bonds, artistic activity as a rite of passage, youth and waywardness – and inversely, youth and ambition – collaboration, and reconciliation, among other things. Students, administrators, and faculty develop tensions and bonds simultaneously during the intensive rehearsal process, but they constitute the film’s emotional draw as well as its absorbing aspect.
Yang opts to be silent behind the camera in order to provide a platform for the students, administrators, and faculty alike to express themselves in relation to the musical show as a multifaceted opportunity for everyone involved: for emotional/psychological growth and confidence, above all, personally and collectively. Through a blend of sit-down interviews, observational footage that charts the progress of rehearsals during the summer, and poetic interludes that present a student in a quiet, reflective moment, Yang captures the lively community of students and musical personnel as they work with – and sometimes frustrate – each other to arrive at a cohesive, quality performance. Though silent, Yang’s documentary presence is palpable through the frankness with which everyone involved in the musical speaks about their feelings, desires, and rapport with others indirectly or directly in front of the camera. By extension, if in documentary the dynamic emotional tenor can stem in part from the trust, or mistrust, that develops between the filmmaker and her film subjects, this frankness is a testament to the trust between Yang and her film subjects.
Trust/mistrust is in fact yet another issue addressed organically in the film. Some students require that extra push and close mentoring, either in terms of keeping them focused/disciplined or instilling confidence that is not in them yet despite their strong drive. Emblematic of the former situation is Jason, highly energetic and outspoken, and of the latter situation is Tsz-nok, who lost his eyesight entirely only a year before. Tsz-nok’s emotional journey is particularly striking. He attends a visually impaired school since he gradually lost his sight due to an accident. But instead of experiencing the difficulties of accepting and adapting to his blindness, he has quickly come to terms with it and does not find it a hindrance to his desire to push himself with the musical show. The difficulties lie with his parents, especially his mother, who is somewhat in denial of her son’s condition. Yet it would be wrong to think that the entire documentary focuses on Tsz-nok’s story, with an eye to wrench as much drama from it as possible; the opposite rings true. The drama is certainly there, but Yang weaves back and forth between various interview subjects, which conveys the desire above all to stage a community of voices as opposed to just one. In this sense, though the title uses the singular possessive ‘my,’ it denotes the collective as much as the individual perspective.
In this regard, this film has come at a rather significant period in Hong Kong – released there in fall 2014. The year 2014 would culminate with the Hong Kong protests against Beijing for its policies on Hong Kong elections (these protests have since been named the ‘Umbrella revolution,’ in reference to Hong Kongers’ mode of protection against tear gas and water). Since that time, protests have recurred in 2015, such as in June. Yang’s film is significant in this context for its staunchly local Hong Kong point of view and identity. (Though one of the students whom Yang singles out to interview is a girl from the mainland, she is from the southern Cantonese-speaking region of Guangdong.) The title in this context also gains several more layers of meaning, denoting not only an individual and community perspective but a specifically Hong Kong one at that.
That the film resonates beyond the level of high school students mounting a musical show is demonstrated through the clips of brief interviews with local yet internationally renowned Hong Kong filmmakers and actors that Yang has included in her YouTube account. The likes of actors Andy Lau (who gets a special mention in the film’s end credits), Sandra Ng, and Nick Cheung, and filmmakers Johnnie To and Fruit Chan, among others, give voice to their support of the film and its sociocultural impact and significance in these interviews, which function as extra-diegetic pockets of meaning and position the film in a larger dialogue about Hong Kong, media, institutions, local experiences, and self-expression/-representation.