In the wake of the mass protests that raged throughout Hong Kong for much of 2019 and the first half of last year, the 2021 international film festivals have programmed any number of nonfiction recountings of this violent upheaval, sold on merit of access and immediacy. And Inside the Red Brick Wall (which had its U.S. premiere with True/False in May and now plays the third CineCina Film Festival) can claim this more definitively than any of them, its runtime dedicated exclusively to comprehensive, on-the-ground footage of the standoff between student protestors and the militarized Hong Kong Police Force that occurred at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019. The film is edited in a fluid, linear fashion by the anonymous Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective and takes audiences through a week plus-long siege on the university campus at a cinematic pace unhindered by overt editorializing. The conflict began the morning of November 17, 2019, when young masked protestors set up roadblocks around PolyU in response to the government’s proposal of an extradition bill that would make it exceedingly easy for Hong Kong residents to be deported to China. The bill was ostensibly drawn up to cut through legal complications that emerged when trying to prosecute Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong citizen who murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan before fleeing home and facing few repercussions because he couldn’t be extradited and charged. But it’s also viewed as a maneuver by the Chinese government (already in the practice of extrajudicial extraditions) to exert further control over Hong Kong — and thus resulted in widespread protests that became gradually more violent as they were met with brutal police suppression tactics.
Inside the Red Brick Wall picks up some nine months after the introduction of the extradition bill, and about 6 months after police-protester relations became combative. The severity of this struggle is immediately apparent: The audience is given privileged access to the frontlines of the activists faceoff with fascist law enforcement, who use a variety of advanced weaponry to maim and subdue the protestors while dispersing their roadblock. From there, the police surround the remaining activists encamped at the University, and a 5 day standoff ensues, the camera(s) staying beside the young people trapped inside the university for its duration. The filmmakers successfully pack a lot into the relatively fleet 88-minute runtime, not only giving us a broad overview of how the event played out, but also pausing on the deliberations of this non-hierarchical collective as they confront the increasingly desperate reality of their situation and the tension between the needs of the group and individual safety. We bear witness to emotional breakdowns and resignations, to doomed attempts at fighting the police head-on, and to dubious older, center-leaning professors (part of a group of uninvolved civilians also trapped on campus) brokering peace between the warring parties. The Hong Kong Filmmakers who shot and assembled Inside the Red Brick Wall have captured this pivotal political moment with remarkable clarity, rendering it not just legible but actively engrossing. The amount of footage captured by this team, not to mention its general professional quality, puts it out ahead of most of the Hong Kong protest documentaries that have circulated 2021 festivals, and marks Inside the Red Brick Wall as one of the more essential texts on the matter — universal in its depiction of the grave stakes taken on by those who organize against state.
Published as part of CineCina Film Festival 2021.