When talking about Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, the biggest challenge is what vocabulary to use. The film, a hybrid of fiction and documentary, doesn't use a traditional narrative, but it's not entirely abstract either – it's a contemplative sort of parallel storytelling, one where the elliptical space between fact and fiction combines to make a third creature that is no less true.
The third feature directed by Christopher Doyle (the renowned cinematographer of Chungking Express, Hero, In the Mood for Love) makes its world premiere at TIFF on Saturday, and grew out of an original 2014 short film commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival (it was funded with a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $124,000). The tripartite structure expands on the voices of the schoolchildren Doyle interviewed for the short to include the real-life events that overtook the filmmaker last fall, when the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests became a village of nearly 2,500 tents occupying the Admiralty district. (The Hong Kong premiere is scheduled for the movement's Sept. 28 anniversary.) The film shares the stories, dreams and disillusionments of twentysomethings and others in and around the pro-democracy camp, and that of the older generation closer to Doyle's own age (63). That's, at least, the true part.
"In Toronto, it's in the feature film section, but then in Busan it's in the documentary section," Doyle says in an interview from Hong Kong. "We never know how to describe it."
As I chatted over Skype with Doyle and the film's co-producer Jenny Suen – both briefly back in Doyle's adopted city of Hong Kong after visiting Shanghai, where Nobody Knows Where, his site-specific installation, is on display at the Aurora Museum – the duo explained how the film was crafted in a uniquely democratic way. After they initially interviewed more a hundred children for their thoughts on life and the future for the short film, they did the same with the subsequent real-people-as-characters they cast.
"I always say we 'found' them," Suen says. "'Cast' seems so cold."
"I don't want to claim that we're making a new vocabulary, but we don't know the words to describe what we've done," Doyle adds. "We're looking for a term … Dada-realism?"
"Reali-Dada," Suen chimes in.
These "found" people include an underground bar owner, a recycler (one they see on Doyle's street every day), an artist who drew the Occupy village map, an ex-pat, a feng shui apprentice, and a six-year-old girl they dubbed Little Red Hood, all of whom share of themselves in voice-over rather than dialogue, even as they appear in recontextualized and improvised scenes on locations around Hong Kong. Through Doyle's lens, the personal histories become a series of visual tone poems that are as lush and immersive as they are crisp and coolly serene. (They could not be less like the kaleidoscopic neon Hong Kong of Chungking Express, for example, which Doyle shot in the same area.) Over all, says Doyle, the film is about "making a parallel journey through the ideas in their head, their motivations, their aspirations."
"That's my job, to find an image that expresses an idea," he continues, adding that he's shot about 15 films in these same Hong Kong locations, yet each is completely different. "The energy comes from the people, the style comes from a mixture – I think it's a tai chi kind of thing – it's a give and take, a 'pushing hands' kind of thing," Doyle adds, "and then the space itself energizes what's happening. When you just move things around a little bit, it has a different context."
Hong Kong Trilogy may not have a plot, but it's rich with other narrative elements, such as connective colour symmetries – the blue-and-white striped tents of the Umbrella Movement village echo the ribboning pale blue walkway of the preschool railings. "Blue is good enough to structure a film about," Doyle says. "It's that simple. The beauty of it. And that totally structured how then we put people into this space because the blue and the white and that space was so unexpected and yet so elegant and so evocative, pure and simple."
The film's observational and at times dream-like quality is emphasized by the fact that its characters speak only in voice-over. In one scene, the door of a morgue unit opens and a twitchy man steps out, while another disgorges hundreds of folded yellow paper umbrellas that transform to rain down the screen as animation.
"If it has a certain poetry that's because yes, we placed them in certain predicaments or situations under certain conditions that we felt were responsive to what the voice-over was saying," Doyle says. "Always, the real locomotive and generator of the energy of the film is what they're saying."
The Australian-born Doyle is a sui generis cinematographer whose distinct approach and style feature in more than 80 films with directors ranging from Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai to Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and M. Night Shyamalan. Now averaging about five films a year, he's just been in Chile lensing Poesia sin fin, the next instalment of Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical films where, he says, it's been a similar process.
"The people you're working with, that does form a so-called style, it impacts a narrative and the visual choices you make. It's always that journey."
Hong Kong Trilogy has its world premiere Sept. 12, 10:15 p.m, Bell Lightbox, followed by a director Q&A.