Tartist Ai Weiwei is emerging as a fiercely productive documentary maker, with two more feature credits this year: Vivos, on the kidnapping of student protesters in Mexico, and CoroNation, on the spread of Covid-19 in and from Wuhan. But here is his dynamic and visually stunning cockroach. Apart from everything else, this is a spectacular action flick that begins with a shot that made me gasp: a Hong Kong protester on a rooftop is cornered by the police and, in an attempt to escape, he tries to get down the unstable scaffolding on the front of the building, with other demonstrators at street level shouting their alarm. The result is breathtaking.
Cockroach talks about the passionate pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which was sparked by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill by the pro-Chinese Hong Kong government in 2019, exposing protesters to the extradition to mainland China and effectively destroying that 50-year minimum of judicial independence and autonomy promised to the people of Hong Kong in the 1997 handover. Chinese authorities: Their proud sense of democratic independence is seen as ridiculously irrelevant by an increasingly belligerent national government – and so are all human rights. A banner proclaims that they are along the same lines as Tibet and the Uyghurs, and the whole of Hong Kong is going to be a scorched earth monument to Beijing’s new obsession with alpha-dog nationalism.
Ai has an extraordinarily daring crew of cameramen shooting 4K digital video, right in the midst of the sickening violence in the streets and hovering overhead with drones. (This use of drone shots, which is becoming a cliché in all film and television productions, is perfectly justified, with superb aerial shots that give an idea of the scale of the protests and the dramatic and tragic dimension of the tyranny imposed. Staggering scenes of violent crackdown show you something that the evening TV news doesn’t show much – and perhaps not at all now that Covid has overwhelmed our attention: the Hong Kong protests are the most mass protest. important since Paris 1968, or perhaps Paris 1832.
The protesters have been galvanized by the brutal and frightening imposition of inhuman and brutal power, and the protesters very often are non-political types who have been deprived of what we perhaps take very lightly: their freedom. They have to wear black clothes and masks (sometimes gas masks) to avoid identifying themselves or inhaling tear gas, and they look eerily like an army opposed to the police who are also an anonymous banned. Shots of strange tag affixed to officers’ rifle butts: “LESS LETHAL”. Will they, at some stage soon, tire of their stun phaser approach and release other rifles marked “MORE LETHAL”?
Cockroach is easily as good as Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s excellent 2017 film about migrants, and it’s something to put alongside Cheryl Haines and Gina Lebrecht’s 2019 documentary Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, on the installation which he carried out remotely in the building of the Alcatraz prison, while he was under house arrest in Beijing. The cockroach has the same spectacular visual sense and the same fierce engagement.