'Cockroach': Film Review

Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio
A potent, universally relevant look at ideals in action.

Ai Weiwei takes viewers to the streets for the scariest parts of recent Hong Kong political protests.

A vivid look at what it means for populations to rise up against governments intent on curbing their liberties, Ai Weiwei's Cockroach takes us to the streets of Hong Kong in 2019, as young people violently resist measures chipping away at their independence from mainland China. The third doc Ai has released this year (following Coronation and the Sundance entry Vivos), it's among his most effective films to date — tightly focused and morally urgent. As an example of civilian/police conflict that has become literally incendiary, its relevance to current protests for justice in America should be obvious.

Though it isn't completely without context, this is not the place to come for a close examination of issues leading to 2019's protests, nor for a debate about the merits of physical resistance. Instead, it's a you-are-there look at young people who understand their democracy is under attack and would rather risk their lives than throw up their hands and flee Hong Kong.

A few formal interviews talk to officials with things to say about the district's long struggle to maintain the "high degree of autonomy" from China that was promised when that nation took control from the U.K. in 1997. We hear from Martin Lee and Emily Lau of the region's Democratic Party; Jimmy Lai of the influential Apple Daily news outlet; and Legislative Council member Claudia Mo. These are all members of an older generation, acknowledging that their own attempts to steer things (the "love & peace" approach, as Lee puts it) have been seen as ineffectual by many younger citizens.

The perspective of that younger generation, by contrast, is largely anonymous in interviews — delivered by thoughtful speakers who don't appear on camera, or who speak through layers of identity-cloaking protective equipment. Their complaints aren't always very specific, but they call present-day Hong Kong "a miserable place to live" and resent the influx of mainlanders.

On the streets, the complaints are more concrete. "Five demands, not one less!" chant demonstrators, who've come out in opposition to a proposed extradition law that could undermine Hong Kong's legal system and increase Beijing's power. We don't see how police response to these protests escalate the situation, but soon we're amid crowds who take things into their own hands: Pooling their strength, they rip up heavy security gates, break windows and otherwise vandalize buildings they associate with mainland Chinese oppression.

Violence turns from property to people. As formations of armored cops attempt to quash protests, ragtag activists swing bats and throw bricks at their plexi shields. Some viewers will object, and (though it does offer plenty of scenes of police brutality) the film isn't very concerned with convincing peaceful-protest purists that physical aggression is called for here. It assumes we understand the moral conflict and the stakes.

For those who do, or who are willing to let the action wash over them and do their homework afterward, the film quickly becomes thrilling in a Battle of Algiers-sort of way. Though we aren't privy to as much behind-the-scenes strategy as we were in that 1966 guerilla-warfare classic, Ai's photographers are in the action (on both sides) to a startling degree — within arm's reach of countless Molotov cocktails, doused with water canons, dazed and sickened by tear gas.

After stepping back briefly to talk with self-described nonpolitical Hongkongers who got drawn into the movement, and with artists who found they could use their talents for the cause, the doc returns to the barricades. Organized bands of activists occupy one large school campus and then another, hoping to shut down the Cross Harbour Tunnel and inspire a general strike. Punkgod's anxious electro score grows more intense as police lay siege to Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Here, the film finds extremes. We see arresting images of protesters' successes holding back the cops, but also hear the despair of young people who see no way out. A moment of levity — when a protester turns cops' impersonal announcements about "unlawful assembly" against them — is welcome here, but the sequence's overall effect is dispiriting.

Later, we go with some unmasked young people to the outskirts of town, where a bare patch of land may soon be home to a compound training cops in "counterterrorism." The youths worry that such efforts point Hong Kong in the direction of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are held in vast "re-education" camps. Any Westerner inclined to think he has enough to worry about within his own borders should remember Jimmy Lai's warning from earlier in the film: If China won't respect its own citizens' rights today, what will constrain its "dictatorial values" when it soon becomes the world's greatest economic power?

Production company: AWW Germany GmbH
Distributor: Alamo on Demand (Available Friday, December 18)
Director-Producer: Ai Weiwei
Directors of photography: Raul Gallego Abellan, Li Dongxu, Ma Yan
Editors: Alam Raja Verges, Raul Gallego Abellan
Composer: Punkgod

93 minutes