Denise Ho: Becoming the Song movie review (2020)

Part of the reason why Williams’ film hit me harder than Piscatella’s film did is the fact that its footage of police brutality against protestors is practically indiscernible from what we’ve recently seen occurring throughout America in recent weeks. The cold hand of oppression has repeatedly beaten down unarmed and elderly citizens, leaving them to bleed on the streets. The end goal of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests suddenly seems not all that different from the desire of the Black Lives Matter movement to hold America accountable for the promises it has never fulfilled. These movements are, to quote one of Ho’s uplifting tunes, “taking different paths” while “speaking the same language.”

Whereas Wong remained largely enigmatic in his own documentary, Williams provides us with a vivid sense of what makes Ho tick, exploring how her schooling in Montreal caused her to value individuality. She becomes so tearful while attempting to perform a song named after the Canadian town that she finds herself unable to continue, prompting an audience member to quip, “Try Toronto!” Ho’s independent spirit was present from the beginning, as evidenced by her refusal to conform to the demands of record companies capable of launching her career a few years earlier, following her triumph in a 1996 singing contest. We even see Mui tell a visibly uncomfortable Ho that she must wear dresses during a television interview, an instruction that the disciple would heed for years, much to her chagrin.

Williams does a fine job of juxtaposing Ho’s evolution with a history lesson on Hong Kong, though there are occasions where its series of title cards can veer close to a PowerPoint presentation. 1984’s Sino-British Joint Declaration that upheld the “one country, two systems” principle, assuring Hong Kong that it would be granted autonomy following the Handover, was swiftly undermined by the massacre of pro-democracy protestors by police just five years later in Tiananmen Square. The government’s blocking of a legislative law against LGBTQ+ discrimination is ultimately what inspired Ho to come out of the closet, lending new meaning to her first single “Thousands More of Me,” an ode to the brave multitudes whom she stands with in solidarity. 

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