Demonstrators use umbrellas as shields, a tactic learned during the 2014 Umbrella Movement
Demonstrators in Hong Kong use umbrellas as shields, a tactic learned during the 2014 Umbrella Movement

Remember 2019? Forget the rose-tints. For much of the world, it was not uncursed either. Now, dissident Chinese artist and film-maker Ai Weiwei rewinds 12 months before the pandemic with Cockroach, a stunning, troubling record of the anti-Beijing protests that convulsed Hong Kong throughout last year. It deserves your full attention.

Most of what we see takes place at street level, charged with you-are-here intensity as bricks fly and tear gas billows. (Edited by Ai in Berlin, the footage was gathered by nerveless camera operators.) We begin in media res. The protests are under way and — interviewees sadly explain — Hong Kong already knows that no one will save it.

The object of the people’s rage is central Chinese rule, the imperilment of human rights, the stripping away of autonomy promised during handover from Britain in 1997. Factor in too the lot of self-defined “cogs” in a place of miserable economic realities. So unite the office workers, students, bank clerks, baristas, anime artists and elderly couples. Many say they never used to think about politics. Now they wear cycling helmets as armour, umbrellas repurposed as riot shields.

A demonstrator is detained by riot police, as captured in ‘Cockroach’
A demonstrator is detained by riot police, as captured in ‘Cockroach’

Between confrontations, Ai captures uneasy drone shots of a darkened Victoria Harbour and massed skyscraper lights. It feels trite to talk about the film as spectacle, but events feel haunted by dystopian sci-fi movies. Ai gives voice to masked members of the riot police. “You play the bad guy,” one says. “The director says ‘camera’. This is the script.”

Yet the protesters have moved into a different media age. Cockroach, titled after the nickname the police use for them, is a portrait of a modern uprising beyond just ever-present brands (figures in Nike attack Beijing-owned malls; Bulgari becomes a war zone). The protests are not the work of committees but scattered individuals, word put out on encrypted social media as if for an underground party, a marketplace of revolt. Authoritarianism, the film suggests, is best resisted without authority.

Cockroach ends before 2020 and coronavirus. (Ai has already made a documentary about the Wuhan lockdown, the potent Coronation.) But a title card notes the passing this June of the Hong Kong National Security Law, with it the end of the protective principle “One Country, Two Systems”. A Chinese story, Ai presents it too as a looming vision of a collective future, one in which autocracies everywhere deploy brute force and facial recognition software. The cockroaches are due our admiration. We should hope they prove hard to kill.

★★★★☆

On Alamo on Demand in the US and on Vimeo in the rest of the world

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