Interpreting Political Unrest in Hong Kong Through The Midnight After (2014)
Hong Kong is standing at a crucial social and political juncture in its history. A former British colony, it has retained its unique legal system, electoral system, and political democracy. These systems have worked together to create a society in which residents are entitled to their rights with a strong and equal rule of law that governs the society. The 1st of July 1997 marked the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the PRC (HKSAR). Many fear that as time progresses, the PRC will dismantle the current system and integrate Hong Kong into the centralised government that exists on the mainland, resulting in the loss of individual rights and freedoms – especially the right to free speech – and on a larger scale, the loss of true democracy. Research suggests that the current political system is in slow decline, beginning with the erosion of public support for political parties in the Legislative Council (Lau, Kuan, 1012).
At the same time, the people of Hong Kong are attempting to re-evaluate and examine their unique national identity. Ambivalent in their attitude towards the PRC and the ideology of the mainland, Hong Kongers are faced with finding a balance between inclusion within and differentiation from the general Chinese identity. Through time, tensions between Hong Kongers and the mainland have increased to a high level. There is also dissatisfaction towards Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, who some see as being a “puppet” figure controlled by Beijing. Recent social movements protesting the PRC’s rule over Hong Kong’s democracy are indicative of a very “real” issue at hand, of a public increasingly dissatisfied with the unclear future of the governance of the city. This public dissatisfaction is widely covered by the media, from the mainstream news media to films and other visual art media.
Director “Fruit” Chan Gor’s 2014 film The Midnight After is a horror/comedy/satire fusion that on a surface level provides viewing entertainment, but on a deeper level examines and comments on the socio-political crisis currently taking place in the SAR. The film uses the genre conventions of the apocalyptic thriller to enable the use of exaggeration and hyperbole to convey its sincere messages with deliberation and subtlety. Compared to other films that attempt to discuss the political future of Hong Kong – for example, Ten Years (十年), directed by Wong, Kwok (2015) – Chan’s film appears to be of a more laidback and theatrical nature, as it uses not only generic conventions but also many elements of Hong Kong’s distinct humour and slang. Ten Years presents a straight, serious visualisation of the same phenomenon that Midnight After examines.
However, Ten Years lacks the latter’s humour and light-hearted nature. Instead, it depicts a draconian, somewhat 1960s Maoist society which resembles the now-defunct communist regime. Ten Years dictates the audience's thoughts rather than providing room for imaginative interpretation. In contrast, Midnight After’s indirect and embellished approach towards the situation ultimately allows the audience to devise its own understanding and comprehension of the sociopolitical situation. An exciting, seemingly light-hearted genre provokes the audience to think on a deeper level about the contexts in the film, inviting viewers to consider how the film relates to their own lives and the society in which they live.
Late into the night, sixteen passengers board a red public light bus headed from the busy Kowloon district of Mong Kok to Tai Po in New Territories, the largest of the three districts of Hong Kong. An arguing couple board the minibus but alight after a disagreement. Later, in a moment of dark foreshadowing, the minibus passes by a major motor accident on a nearby street and the passengers realise that the same couple have been killed. All seems fine as the minibus makes its way to Tai Po, until it reaches Sha Tin at the other end of the Lion Rock Tunnel. Driving through the roads of New Territories, the passengers begin to wonder if something is amiss. The roads are completely deserted and there is not one person on the streets.
Even the normally bustling around-the-clock Tai Po Market is deserted. New Territories seems to have become completely devoid of any human life other than the sixteen minibus passengers and the driver. Gradually, strange events begin to take place and the characters realise that something is very wrong. Throughout the next few days, the survivors begin to grasp and adjust to the fact that they are the only people left in Hong Kong, and possibly in the entire world. For all of their apocalyptic exaggeration, the plot elements are references to actual historic events in Hong Kong: the Lion Rock Tunnel represents the transition of Hong Kong’s status from that of a British territory to that of a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Passing through the tunnel and arriving at what seems to be a different universe symbolises the transition of Hong Kong society following Establishment Day, 1st July 1997.
Initially, upon reaching the other end of the Lion Rock Tunnel, the characters of the film are at first doubtful that there was anything amiss. When one character expresses her fear that something might be wrong, the others tease her for “being ridiculous.” However, as the film progresses, some of the characters die strange deaths and mysterious masked figures appear, leading to more questions than answers. The surviving characters gradually realise that there are indeed unusual things happening. Some of them exhibit near-hysterical reactions and worry about what will happen next: will another one in the group die a sudden and unexpected death? In the second half of the film, the characters fully acknowledge the fact that the future is uncertain and that they need to be determined to fight for survival and work together to endure against the odds.
Just as the characters experience skepticism at first, then confusion and finally determination, the people of Hong Kong were initially skeptical of any real changes to society and government during the handover. That skepticism turned into confusion when Tung Chee Hwa was elected to become the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Known as a conservative businessman, Tung was believed by many to have had a strong relationship with the PRC government. In 1986, his company, Orient Overseas Container Line, was bordering on bankruptcy; however, a close acquaintance, Henry Fok Ying Tung – then vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – bailed Tung out with a ¥780 million loan. Additionally, five months prior to the handover, Fok had recommended Tung to the central government for the position of the first Chief Executive of the HKSAR (Ewing). Tung was criticised for his method of governance during the 1997 financial crisis. Additionally, the increase in unemployment rates and alleged crony capitalism led Hong Kongers to doubt Tung. On 1 July 2003, as public discontent continued to rise, confusion became determination when over 500,000 protesters took to the streets to demand that Tung resign from office, forming the largest protest in Hong Kong since 1997.
Figure 1. Scenes from Occupy Central in Hong Kong (L) and New York (R), one of the international protest sites. (Images © 2014 NuPolitical Review and International Business Times)
This determination in the effort to maintain the well-being of Hong Kong has continued to the present day; pro-democracy and true universal suffrage movements and demonstrations such as the Occupy Central Democracy Protests (“Umbrella Movement”) and #FishballRevolution are indicative of this increasing determination. Most notable is the 2014 Occupy Central protest, which lasted almost three months from 26 September to 15 December. During this demonstration, over 30,000 people took to the streets after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress announced that the 2017 Chief Executive Elections, which were initially promised to be open to the public electorate, would in fact be partially restricted. Specifically, there would be open elections; however, the candidates would first be screened and selected by the CE Nominating Committee (GovHK).
This sparked public outcry as Hong Kongers felt that this decision was another visible example of the corrosion and contamination of Hong Kong’s democratic system of government by the PRC. This determination is a crucial characteristic of Hong Kongers both in reality and in the film – in a sense, both parties are fighting for survival. In the film, we are looking at survival in a literal sense, and in the real world we are looking at survival in a social and political sense, in that Hong Kongers are fighting for the survival of democracy and the integrity of their society and system of government.
The air of despair and urgency in the film also reflects the real-world tension that is the result of Hong Kongers’ resistance and ambivalence towards mainlanders. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the quality of life in Hong Kong substantially improved and the city established itself as a global economic and financial centre, the distinct, individual identity of Hong Kong began to develop. According to a study by Chan Chi Kit, “China as ‘Other’” (2014), the contrast between these advancements and the political and social turmoil occurring in the mainland during this time period further affected Hong Kongers’ perception of the mainland. Incidents such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 lingered in the minds of a substantial portion of Hong Kongers, helping to construct a perception of China as an “alien, backwards, and chaotic ‘other’, whereas the image of Hong Kong was one of a modernising and increasingly international city” (Chan, 26). In the days following the handover, however, Hong Kong began a process of renationalisation.
The resulting socioeconomic interaction between Hong Kongers and mainlanders led to both a “shared living experience and emotional response to Hong Kongers’ perception of China” (Chan 26). Through this, Hong Kongers demonstrated pride and identification with distinguished icons representative of the Chinese national identity, yet at the same time maintained the distinctive local label of “Hong Kong people.” According to Chan’s study, during the first decade after the handover these overlapping ideologies could be understood as stemming from the three perspectives of official political discourse, national education, and the cultural perception of mainland people by Hong Kong locals. However, in the second decade after the handover, there has been “rapid, substantial and intensified interaction between Hong Kongers and their mainland counterparts” (Chan, 32).
The trans-border experience changed vastly during this second decade – there has been a surge in mainland investment in Hong Kong leading to outcomes such as skyrocketing property prices and increasing instances in mainland visitors from the neighbouring city of Shenzhen taking advantage of the multiple entry visa policy. These visitors, also known as parallel traders (水貨客), frequently purchase large quantities of goods, resulting in a shortage of household goods in New Territories. For example, one of the most common scenarios is mainlanders purchasing infant milk powder. After the food safety scandal in 2008 involving contaminated infant milk powder, many mainland parents have resorted to importing milk powder from foreign countries, particularly Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
Those living in Shenzhen and nearby Guangzhou Province frequently enter Hong Kong in droves to purchase milk powder and return to the mainland to distribute the products in the grey market at inflated prices. Often these traders purchase in such large quantities that many stores are depleted of stock, making it difficult for Hong Kongers to obtain milk powder for their own infants (Oriental Daily). This situation has rapidly expanded and now includes the purchases of many other commodities, from clothing to electronics. As a result, there is growing animosity from locals towards these parallel traders.
Figure 2. Parallel traders secure their baggage while queuing up at Sheung Shui MTR Station to board the East Rail Line to Shenzhen (image © 2012 Apple Daily News)
These scenarios, while not specifically mentioned or referenced in Midnight After, help to understand one of the major sources of conflict between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. This conflict is indirectly depicted towards the end of the film, in a scene in which characters are chased by a multitude of mysterious figures in gas masks, which seems to symbolise Hong Kongers fleeing from the mainlanders flooding the city.
Throughout Midnight After, there is an air of uncertainty, ambiguity, and confusion. This reflects not only the uncertainty of the past two decades, but also that continually experienced by Hong Kongers as the calendar rolls day by day towards year 2047. The 1st of July 2047 is significant because it is on this day that the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires. The agreement, which stipulates that Hong Kong shall retain its electoral and governmental systems, led to the establishment of the HKSAR under paragraph 3.1, which calls for the “[u]pholding [of] national unity and territorial integrity.”
It also allowed for the HKSAR to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” (par. 3.2). However, what lies beyond 1 July 2047 is an unknown. Some speculate that Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (PRC), has provided a foreshadowing of post-2047 Hong Kong. Speaking to pro-Beijing press regarding the electoral reform bill, he stated that “no legal system stays the same forever” (Yeung). This could possibly indicate that the People’s Republic has plans to integrate Hong Kong into the mainland’s political/legal systems. The characters of Midnight After are consistently unsure of the events taking place and what lies in store for them, just as Hong Kongers are unsure of the political – and subsequently social – events that will take place after 2047.
The film also touches on another major topic concerning mainland control of Hong Kong: the decline of the rule of law. There are concerns amongst Hong Kongers that China would alter the Hong Kong system through a shift in governance from a concept of “rule of law” to one of “rule by law,” a legal system classified by the “instrumental use of laws by rulers to facilitate social control and to impose punishment as understood in the Legalist tradition” (Li, 201). In other words, the law is sometimes alleged to have been used to suppress people instead of governing them through equally designating the rights and the “dos and don’ts” of the people as normally expected within a democratic system. The legal system of the PRC includes tough penalties, including capital punishment, for offences some Western societies might be inclined to punish less harshly. Under this system, suspects convicted of homicide, drug possession and trafficking, and rape (amongst other violent and serious nonviolent capital offences) are subject to the death penalty by lethal injection.
For example, in June 2013 six convicted drug traffickers were sentenced to death for illicit transactions and trafficking of over 25 kg of methamphetamine, ketamine and heroin (Global Times, People’s Daily, Xinhua). In 2010, at least 59 people were executed for drug-related offences (Keck). Westerners who don’t understand the system or culture express concerns over such a system, claiming that it is unfair and biased against a defendant’s rights (Amnesty International). Some of these concerns highlight the belief that suspects should be granted the right to a fair trial with legal representation. It is necessary, though, to understand that the ideology shaping the criminal justice system of the PRC stipulates that it is better to have imprisoned a thousand innocent people than to let one guilty suspect walk free, and that those guilty of crimes, especially heinous offences, must be punished severely.
These concepts stem from historical backgrounds, including the classical Legalist school of philosophy and, most notably, Qin Shi Huang, Chang Kai Shek and Wang Jingwei. Many of the harsh penalties are justified by this strict ideology. In Midnight After, there is a scene in which a rapist comes forth and admits his crime. The members of the group are furious at the rapist and work to determine his punishment. The group leader decides that each member of the group is to take turns stabbing the rapist, not only to serve as punishment for his actions but also to serve as an example for the rest of the group; in other words, law and punishment are used to “facilitate social control and to impose punishment” (Li, 201). Initially, the members of the group are reluctant, some wondering what has happened to the rule of law. Some suggest bringing him to trial when things return to normal. However, the leader of the group declares in the name of “true justice” that the perpetrator must be punished for his crime by stabbing, and threatens to stab those who do not co-operate with his order. One by one, each person reluctantly takes turns stabbing the suspect. At one point, one of the characters asks, “Does this mark the end of the rule of law and human moral values?”
This quote directly reflects the anxieties of some Hong Kongers about their legal system. Whether Hong Kong will successfully maintain its current system of law and attitudes towards justice is a question that can only be answered with time. Through this scene, the film appeals to the senses of morality and justice. Specifically, it causes the audience to reflect on the purpose and values of justice. This scene elicits some form of sympathy towards the rapist; it is almost as if he himself has now become a victim of a distorted system of justice. This scene highlights a transformation of concepts of justice, from that of a restorative system to one of restitutive rhetoric. The film also discreetly exhibits the detrimental effects of cruel, disproportionate, almost mob-like justice on social order. Instead of restoring order in the group through a constructive, collective approach, the leader achieves compliance through brute force – instilling fear in his constituents, even threatening them with similar punishment if any of them does something wrong. As a result, the members of the group eventually attempt to revolt against the leader, but this is quickly averted by a quick-thinking individual who is able to reunite the group just in time for their escape from their mysterious masked pursuers.
The Midnight After provides a provocative examination of the social and political situations occurring in Hong Kong in the present decade, demanding deep reflection on these controversies and their effects on Hong Kong’s future. Most importantly, this film succeeds where many others fall short. Through the use of the science fiction and action thriller genres, it is able to provide a highly perceptive yet subtle commentary on socio-political events and ideologies, from conflicts over national identity to anxieties about the rule of law and the preservation of democracy. The style of the film – adopting the conventions of the apocalyptic thriller – allows for acute analysis while fitting well within the boundaries of “entertainment,” resulting in a film that is capable of engendering political reflection without exhibiting any apparent political themes or elements.
Furthermore, the film conveys a valuable message at the end, as the characters travel towards Tai Mo Shan to investigate their situation and find answers. The film cuts to a fade out as we see the minibus diminishing as it continues down the expressway. The future for the characters is unknown, both to the viewers and to the characters themselves, but given their ready-forbattle demeanour, we can only assume that regardless of what they encounter, they will persist until they find answers and solutions. Similarly, as we endure inflamed conflict with the mainland people and worry about the implications of sovereignty of the PRC, there is only so much we can achieve. However, just as the characters persevere and fight for their survival despite an unknown future, we must be strong and maintain persistent in our cause despite the unknown that awaits us in Hong Kong post-2047. We must bring our efforts together for the survival of our culture, our society, and our city for all it means to us. Just as the film reminds us at the closing: “As the city falls asleep under the dimming of lights, have we forgotten those glorious times and know not what today has become?” (01:56)
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