Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Denise Ho lights up New York.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino-LorberDenise Ho, Jeffrey Ngo, Victoria Hui, Janny Ho, Margaret Ng, Anthony Wong, Henry Ho, Harris Ho, John Tsang, Jelly Cheng. Directed by Sue Williams

Hong Kong has been in the headlines a great deal over the past decade. The Umbrella Protests of 2014 illustrated that the promises of Beijing to allow Hong Kong to self-govern once the city went from being a British colony to be returned to Chinese control in 1997, were complete falsehoods. Following a law that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, further protests erupted last year.

This documentary of one of Hong Kong’s most outspoken pop stars who has become a pro-democracy fixture in that country was released just a day following a repressive new Chinese law that essentially criminalizes the protests in Hong Kong which seriously threatens the pro-democracy movement. It also comes out at a time when our own country is rocked by protests calling for racial equality and an end to police brutality. Although unstated by director Sue Williams, the parallels Between the protests in Hong Kong and in the United States is unmistakable.

Williams does a very good job of showing the progression of events that led to the protests still occurring in Hong Kong. In parallel, the film examines the career of Ho; how she was born to two schoolteachers in Hong Kong who moved to Canada when she was eleven; how her education in Montreal primed her for a future of thinking for herself. She returned to HK in 1996 to compete in a singing contest which she won; the grand prize included a dress worn by Cantopop legend, the late Anita Mui who would eventually take Ho under her wing. Although some of the advice she got was a bit problematic (“you’re a girl, you need to wear dresses” which Ho did early on in her career), she speaks of Mui, known as “The Madonna of the East” and who sadly passed away of cervical cancer in 2003, with great reverence and affection.

But Ho had to go her own way and after breaking away from Mui to start her own solo career, she slowly let go of the trappings of pop stardom; her popularity, however, was indisputable and she regularly sold out stadium shows with her big-scale concerts, full of dancers and elaborate costumes and sets. Ho realized that wasn’t her and she began to change; her songs had always had a bit of revolutionary to them, and she found herself in sympathy with the protesters once they began to arise. After coming out, she found that tour sponsors were pulling out, significantly L’Oréal which bowed to pressure from the mainland Chinese government, not their finest hour.

Once Ho became aligned with the protests and indeed, became something of a spokesman for the movement, she was banned from performing in China, and her records were no longer sold there; when you consider, as her Music Director (and brother) Harris Ho comments, that the bulk of her revenue came from the Chinese market, it became very difficult for Ho financially. She began performing in smaller venues in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, including a show in New York which is shown here. When about to sing a song about Montreal, Ho visibly breaks down, unable to sing because of her strong emotional attachment to that city.

While we get some interviews from fellow activists and some brief snippets from family members, and of course from Ho herself, there isn’t what you’d call a ton of insight into what makes Ho tick. While we hear a lot of her music with the lyrics helpfully translated, the translations – onscreen in a cursive font – can be hard to read. Her progression from pop diva to activist, though, isn’t really examined very thoroughly so it becomes somewhat jarring when it occurs.

Overall, though, the movie does a good job of explaining what’s going on in Hong Kong and why it is important to the rest of us. It gives us an overview of Ho’s career, but that seems almost secondary to her status as an activist although her music very much reflects her views judging on what I heard and read. While this is going to appeal much more strongly to Cantopop fans it is nonetheless a worthwhile viewing for those interested in Hong Kong.

The film, released on Virtual Cinema by Kino Marquee benefits independent theaters, including the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida and the Coral Gables Art Cinema near Miami. To benefit either of those worthy establishments, just click on their names; for a list of other cinemas outside of Florida benefiting from virtual screenings, click on the link below where it says Virtual Cinematic Experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a good deal of background information about what led to the protests in Hong Kong. Ably displays the activist’s passion and emotion.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the lyrics are difficult to read.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of violence from the protests.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2012, Ho became one of the first Cantopop stars to come out as LGBTQ publicly. Many of her fans, however, had already figured it out due to clues in the lyrics of her songs.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Prodigy

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