'Denise Ho — Becoming the Song': Film Review

Denise Ho - Becoming The Song- Still 1 - Kino Lorber Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
A polyphonic work worth listening to.

Iconoclastic Cantonese pop star Denise Ho, an out lesbian, political dissident and all-around rabble-rouser, is profiled in director Sue Williams' timely documentary.

Denise Ho — Becoming the Song presents a thoughtful, if surprisingly reserved portrait, of Hong Kong-born, Montreal-reared singer Denise Ho, the first Cantopop superstar to come out publicly as gay. Not long after weathering the storm that followed, Ho also became a political activist, marching alongside pro-democracy protesters in the 2014 Umbrella movement and supporting protests against China’s new extradition laws for Hong Kong residents, which stirred up violent confrontations in the streets recently.

Debuting Stateside on digital platforms on July 1 means the film missed being released during Pride month by just one day. However, given that on June 30 the Chinese Communist Party passed measures that will essentially criminalize dissent in Hong Kong, it’s a sadly apt moment to appreciate the bravery of the island’s residents through the prism of this tribute.

Nevertheless, it looks unlikely that this will cross over to audiences not already at least aware of Ho, even if it does a more than competent job of introducing her to Cantopop newbies. Better yet, as a history of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, the film could help educate young people outside of Asia — provided viewers can endure lessons longer than a TikTok video.

Born in 1977 in Hong Kong to parents who were both teachers, Ho seemingly had a fairly unremarkable childhood apart from the fact that her family moved to Canada when she was an adolescent. At 19, she moved back to Hong Kong to take part in a TV singing contest, which she won with her pure belter of a voice. That led to meeting her idol, pop diva and actor Anita Mui, and becoming her apprentice and back-up singer. That early part of Ho’s story, to those unfamiliar with these figures, might sound like a cross between A Star Is Born and All About Eve, but the narrative veers into grittier, more complex territory as it goes on.

Although some of her songs (such as “Rosemary”) hinted at her sexuality, Ho came out in 2012 just as she was breaking big in the Mandarin-language mainland market. The shift away from the squeaky clean, pop-princess image ended up costing Ho a sponsorship deal with Lancome/L’Oreal, who don’t come out of this well. A rethink of her image thus coincided with an open commitment to the pro-democracy movement, marching with protestors and getting arrested. Eventually, she was blacklisted in China, and although she could still perform in Hong Kong, Ho was compelled to crowdfund to put on a concert, which the film touts perhaps a bit too breathlessly.

In fact, although Ho comes across as a smart, principled and gutsy individual, non-fan viewers may find that the film’s hagiographic tendencies end up undermining admiration for the subject. Director Sue Williams, who comes from a background in upscale TV documentary making and has made several films about China, can’t seem to get beyond the carefully presented mask and well-curated knitwear of Ho’s celebrity.

She does, however, assemble a strong, cinematic snapshot of the democracy movement, and gains access to several significant voices from the movement including activist Jeffrey Ngo and politician Margaret Ng. Crisp editing, using choice cuts from Ho’s discography and archive footage of her performances, helps to propel the story forward.

Distribution: Kino Marquee (available via virtual cinema)
With: Denise Ho, Jeffrey Ngo, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, Harris Ho, Janny Ho, Henry Ho, Margaret Ng, Jelly Chen, Mike Orange, Nathan Law
Production: A Kino Lorber, Aquarian Works, Ambrica Productions presentation
Director/screenwriter: Sue Williams
Producers: Sue Williams
Executive producer: Judith Vecchione
Director of photography: Jerry Risius
Editor: Emma Joan Morris
Music: Charles Newman
Sales: Kino Lorber

No rating; 83 minutes