Film Review: “Denise Ho – Becoming the Song” — The Struggle of an Artist and Activist in Hong Kong

By Megan Sergison

Becoming the Song charts Denise Ho’s political awakening, her transformation from Cantopop icon to human rights activist amid the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent Hong Kong.

Denise Ho – Becoming the Song, directed by Sue Williams. In virtual cinema, English & Cantonese with English subtitles, via select cities through Kino Marquee.

A scene from Denise Ho — Becoming a Song.

Hong Kong is in the fight of its life. Since Britain left its former colony to China in 1997, this small but mighty territory has operated under a “one country, two systems” rule, granting it unique autonomy and allowing democracy to take root. But, in the last few years, China has done everything in its power to chip away at Hong Kong’s independence, sparking a wave of at times violent upheaval, the repercussions of which have spilled from beyond its borders to the global stage.

Enter Denise Ho.

Becoming the Song, available in virtual cinemas July 1 from Kino Marquee and directed by seasoned documentarian Sue Williams, charts Ho’s political awakening, her transformation from Cantopop icon to human rights activist amid the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent Hong Kong. Having cut her teeth on films that examine the Chinese government’s suppression of its citizenry, Williams aptly weaves together Ho’s story within the context of an expanding national emergency; she  never strays far from the headlines, drawing a keen parallel between Ho’s efforts to redefine herself and her home’s endeavor to do the same.

Ho, born in Hong Kong but raised in Montreal, Canada, rose to fame under the wing of provocative Cantopop diva Anita Mui. Her dizzying rise to fame is seen through the haze of old concert footage: Ho is decked out from head to toe in shimmering costumes, fans screaming along to her lyrics. It’s all glitter and paparazzi, every bit of the trappings of a modern day pop star. But there was something in Ho that, even amid the fan worship, longed for authenticity, a spirit that transforms a performer to an artist. It’s that search for genuine self-expression that compels Ho to come out as a lesbian during Hong Kong’s pride parade in 2012. The disclosure was also motivated by a political drive, a desire to show solidarity as Hong Kong’s parliament struck down a motion to launch a public commission on LGBT discrimination. That same drive — to embrace herself and reshape her identity — led Ho to further political activism in 2014, as the Umbrella Revolution swept across Hong Kong. She enthusiastically thrust herself into the battle for democracy.

Ho’s newly forged identity is spotlit on the streets of Hong Kong during the resurgence of protests in the summer of 2019. Williams follows her closely as she directs crowds and de-escalates police, putting her voice and her body on the line — just as she did in 2014 when her arrest not only made headlines, but she remained in custody until every person held with her was released. Ho brings that same self-possessed clarity to all her appearances, from the United Nations Human Rights Council to the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China. But her confident assertion of freedom is most evident when she takes the stage. In the stripped-down, oftentimes acoustic performances from the later part of Ho’s career, the camera pulls in close and moves with the performer, capturing her radiance, her ease. Ho doesn’t need elaborate light shows or troupes of dancers. The vulnerability and honesty of her sound is magnetism enough.

Ho’s foray into an independent career — she was dropped by sponsors and banned from the mainland in response to her advocacy — mirrors that of Hong Kong’s shaky first steps in taking advantage of decolonization. As one student activist tells Williams, those in support of the protests want to do more than fight for individual rights. The battle is to define their country, to create a truly “Hong Kong movement.” The goals of Ho and the Umbrella Movement go well beyond amnesty for protestors, an end to police brutality, and universal suffrage for Hongkongers. Their aim is to forge “a culture, an identity.”

The contest for Hong Kong’s political self-determination is at the compelling center of Becoming the Song. While Denise Ho remains a powerful figure in this movement, she knows the struggle is bigger than her. This is about the fight for the basic human rights of 7.5 million people. This is about the Hongkongers who have been tear gassed and beaten by their own police for daring to exercise their right to assembly. This is about last Monday’s overnight dissolution of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy organizations for fear of imprisonment and torture. This is about standing with Hong Kong.

Megan Sergison is a writer currently based in Somerville, Massachusetts. She can be found staring out of the windows of public transportation listening to film scores, persuading anyone and everyone to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or over on Twitter at @megserg.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts