Review: Denise Ho, Becoming the Song

Given that this weekend marks the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that the Chinese government has prohibited any memorial of the incident in Hong Kong for the first time, the opening of Sue Williams’ documentary about pop star/democracy activist Denise Ho in Japan seems opportune for a variety of reasons, not least of all that it may help Japanese viewers focus on what’s at stake in the territory. Even before she threw her lot in with the city’s young pro-democracy contingent, Ho was a controversial figure, mainly because she came out as a lesbian at the height of her popularity as a singer—a revelation that did nothing to dent that popularity—but mainly because she’s forged a path as both an entertainer and a public person that has remained true to her ideals and veers away from those ideals for no one, including the show biz powers-that-be in China. 

As it happens, Ho’s upbringing was seriously affected by Tiananmen. Her parents were teachers and always suspicious of the Chinese Communist Party, and Tiananmen made them rethink their priorities for their children. When Denise was in junior high school, her parents moved the family to Montreal, where the school system, not to mention the Canadian mindset in general, instilled in her a fierce sense of individuality. However, the pull of her home town was always there, and in 1996, encouraged by her older brother (who would eventually become her music director), she entered a Cantopop singing contest and won, which set her up with various music production endeavors in Hong Kong. Her dream was to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Anita Mui, who became her mentor, but she bridled at the trappings of conventional stardom: the focus on glamor, the artistic prerogatives of (mostly) male managers and fans, and a resistance to her desire to tell her own story in song. In fact, it was her implacable will to tell that story that led to her coming out after a decade of playing mainly by the rules and being rewarded handsomely for it. In Williams’ telling of this story, it’s difficult not to imagine that Ho just happened to be the right person at the right time, and in that regard her gravitation to the pro-democracy movement was inevitable, since her own insistence on freely expressing herself as an artist sprang from a native fear following the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China that such freedoms were no longer guaranteed. 

Once the movement shifted to active participation, Ho had no choice but to shift with it, even though she knew it was destroy her career. This is the meaning of the title, “becoming the song.” She had to make real the idealism she sang about. In 2014 she was arrested on camera for taking part in an Umbrella Movement demonstration, and could no longer perform in China, where she had millions of fans. Consequently, many international brands, most notably L’Oreal, which stood by her after she came out, dropped their endorsement deals with her in order to placate the Chinese authorities. 

As powerful as the documentary is, it’s already dated since it ends with the riots over the extradition bill that was eventually overturned. All that seems so long ago, now that the government is cracking down even more ruthlessly than before. Though the movie expresses some hope for Ho by showing how she’s managed to stay solvent by playing concerts for overseas Chinese fans, there’s a bittersweet flavor to these performance vignettes that points to some kind of ending. Denise Ho may not be defeated, but it remains to be seen if her tirelessly potent example as a beacon of personal freedom will survive the current political situation. 

In English (mostly) and Cantonese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song home page in Japanese

photo (c) Aquarian Works LLC

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