Around 2010 I travelled to Hong Kong where – among other things – I watched a fantastic live performance at the music venue Hidden Agenda. Getting there for a tourist was an ominous experience: an MTR ride to Kowloon, and a dark, slightly worrisome walk into an industrial area and down an alleyway behind a strip of warehouse buildings. From there it was a trip up an industrial elevator to the fifth or sixth floor – I forget precisely which. It is only once in the elevator – where you begin to hear the indie rock playing above – that you have any indication that you are heading in the right direction.
Hidden Agenda was a cultural institution for a few years there, not only providing up-and-coming local musicians with a venue but also touring groups from overseas who could never manage to sell out a large, more mainstream venue. Sweden’s Hammerfall and Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse both played there. Some refer to Hidden Agenda as the “CBGB of Hong Kong”.
Why was such an outstanding venue buried down an alleyway in an industrial park? Rents in Hong Kong are astronomical. Seven million residents live on what is effectively and island and a peninsula above it. Independents arts can not afford commercial rents without assistance. To complicate matters, running music venues and art spaces in cheaper industrial zones is illegal in Hong Kong. Hidden Agenda was forced to move twice before being shut down. It is not an isolated example: art in Hong Kong struggles to exist outside the borders set up for it. The National Security Law, passed in June 2020 and placing the once semi-autonomous city directly under Chinese control, has restricted things even further.
Why mention all of this at the start of a film review? It is because Adam Wong’s drama The Way We Keep Dancing, which was released in Hong Kong in late 2020, is a surprisingly bold commentary on the exact forces that doomed Hidden Agenda and the like. It criticises growing gentrification in Hong Kong’s working class areas, and feels very much in opposition to the mainland Chinese laws that are threatening to throttle the Hong Kong film industry. Most surprisingly, Wong writes and directs this political effort under the cover of a sequel to a 2013 teen dance movie. It is a soft wrapping, I suppose, cushioning the political activism from a government particular averse to it.
Here is the weird part: The Way We Keep Dancing is not a direct sequel to 2013’s The Way We Dance. Indeed, in Chinese its title is cheekily appended with a “3”. While much of the original cast return, they abandon their earlier characters in favour of playing fictionalised versions of themselves -having just premiered their sequel The Way We Dance 2 – which was never actually made. WIth growing celebrity status, the dancers find themselves roped in to promote a forthcoming urban renewal project in Kwun Tong. While they initially enjoy their newfound status, it soon degenerates into accusations that they have sold out their art for fame – and that the new development will destroy the precise culture it is ostensibly aimed at supporting.
The Way We Dance relied heavily on attention-grabbing dance sequence to built its audience, and that is not the case in this sequel. While dance appears, it is a fractured series of sequences throughout the film without proper beginnings and endings. While this will undoubtedly disappoint fans of the original, it provides a backdrop for Wong to engage in serious social issues through a fictional lens. An extended range of topics are touched through his characters. For Hana (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling) – the most popular of the group – it means experiencing the non-stop, disposable nature of Hong Kong celebrity status. For rapper Heyo (Heyo) it is about making a living with one’s art while being slammed by your peers for being a “sellout”. For Kai (Leander Lau Ho-Lam) – the youngest member of the team – invasions of privacy may destroy his life before he hits adulthood. Hanging over everybody’s personal arcs is the redevelopment of Kwun Tong, and the manner in which Hong Kong’s government tends to eliminate art that is generated outside of its control.
It is a lot of material for a single feature to cover, and for all its admirable intentions, strong character work, and appealing moments of contemporary street dancing, The Way We Keep Dancing is a full half-hour too long. Much of the film drags and tests its audience’s patience; it even pauses halfway through the narrative for a brief documentary comparing Kowloon and New York’s street cultures. For some viewers the uneven pace will kill the film’s appeal. Given a lot of patience, however, and there are strong rewards in shifting the diamonds from the rough. With so many Hong Kong features targeting the broader Chinese market, it is refreshing to still see films being made for a local audience and about local concerns.