Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joe Piscatella.
When China took back control of Hong Kong in 1996, Hong Kongers were understandably worried about what that would mean for their way of life – after all, they were used to far more freedom that those in mainland China, and wanted to maintain that. In order to quell some of those concerns, China assured Hong Kong – and the world – that they wouldn’t try to change things for 50 years, and that they would “soon” allow Hong Kong to choose their own leaders to represent them. Those free elections never happened, and while Hong Kong clearly isn’t under as strict control as the rest of China, it also isn’t fair to say that they’ve left them alone, like they said they would either. The documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is an inspirational doc, centered on Joshua Wang – who as a 14 year old, created a group called “Scholarism” focused on fighting back against National Education, imposed on Hong Kong by China, and would become part of the Umbrella movement, to get Hong Kong free elections. Like many inspirational docs, it’s one of those film that can simultaneously make you feel good, but also suspect that you aren’t quite getting the whole story – and if you were, you wouldn’t quite be so inspired, as reality rends to be more complicated than this.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be inspired by the story of Joshua Wang. There are few teenagers in Canada or America who would so dedicate their time and energy to fight for what they believe in, and that’s in countries where you probably won’t be thrown in jail for protesting. Joshua is protesting against a government who doesn’t like to be criticized, and usually does not stand for it. The Scholarism protests against National Education eventually end up being a success – Hong Kong backs down, and allows schools to decide whether or not to proceed with its implementations. The Umbrella Movement is more complicated – the protests were widespread across Hong Kong – going on for months, and shutting down various streets and institutions. After a backlash against the police for initially responding with violence, the ended up basically ignoring the protestors, banking, correctly, on the fact that eventually people will move on with their lives.
The movie centers on Joshua throughout both parts of the movie – even while the film also acknowledges that he was hardly alone in fighting, and in term of the Umbrella Movement, he wasn’t among the leadership. This seems like an odd tactic, since other than acknowledge that fact, the film doesn’t really explore anyone other than Joshua – who admits that he became the public face, and felt some responsibility in that (there are times when he talks, when I wish the interviews would push him a little – it almost sounds like his ego is inflating, but they back off and don’t push). It’s also strange that the movie leaves a comment like “the students basically hijacked” the movement – and then doesn’t really explore that either.
The film is only 79 minutes long, and I think it’s safe to say that point of the movie is to inspire – is to be an uplifting documentary, about a kid who stands up for what he believes in, and keeps on fighting. Even though he has had mixed success, he keeps on fighting. There is inspiration to be taken from that for sure – and the film is good at showing why. But I do think that by so narrowly focusing on Joshua, the film misses much of the larger picture that could have made thing more complex.