Film Review: In ‘My Voice, My Life,’ Unlikely Hong Kong Teens Triumph Over Naysayers

Article By Lynn Chawengwongsa

In the late months of 2014, Hong Kong was thrust into the world’s spotlight as its streets erupted with tens of thousands of angry pro-democracy protesters. Massive sit-in demonstrations were staged in places like Mongkok district and Causeway Bay in defiance of the Communist Party of China’s proposed reforms to the territory’s democracy and electoral system. As massive throngs of protesters, many of whom were young students, camped out on the streets on October 7, a smaller crowd of Hong Kongers gathered in a theater in Kowloon to screen the premiere of “My Voice, My Life.”

“My Voice, My Life,” the latest film by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ruby Yang, is a poignant and emotional documentary that follows a group of 31 Hong Kong high school students for six months as they prepare to put on a stage musical.

Plucked from the obscurity of four “Band 3” high schools, that is, underperforming schools that function with few resources and without the generous donations of famous alumni, the students are as diverse a group as one could imagine. From troublesome to well-behaved, clumsy to agile, and timid to outgoing, Yang’s teenage cast form an eclectic bunch.

Like teenagers elsewhere, each Hong Kong youth grapples with his or her own personal struggles ranging from low self-esteem and difficulty concentrating to family tensions and financial difficulties. Yet, sadly, for many Hong Kongers outside this production, what defines this band of misfits above all else is the fact that each one of them attends a Band 3 school.

Through the eyes of her young cast, Yang easily assures her audience that Band 3 students are not to be cast aside as inferior. Interviews with the student cast and family members interspersed between scenes of dance and acting practice sessions deliver a striking look into the personal lives of the Hong Kong youths as they struggle to navigate through their teenage years. From Jason Chow’s candid confession about the time he robbed a taxi to Tsz Nok Lin’s effort to adapt to life after the complete degeneration of his sight, each cast member’s story becomes sincere and tangible, bringing to life the personalities that lay beyond the underdog or lowly “Band 3 student” label.

While the documentary’s basic plot may not seem very attractive at first — the thought of a bunch of high school students putting on a musical is mundane — there is something poignant about documenting the success of young underdogs that never quite fails to deliver. Although the musical’s production launches with a shaky start involving cigarettes and one boy’s threat to quit the musical, the cast learn to act, sing and deliver comedic effect all the while gaining self-confidence and forging friendships. Heartfelt scenes of able-bodied teenagers guiding their physically-impaired fellow cast members through dance practice and glimpses of the cast singing at the beach are visible proof that these youths were brave enough to raze personal barriers and get to know people so different from themselves.

Arguably, the only other people worthy of the applause this group of underdogs deserves are Nick Ho, Ken Kwan and Emily Chung: the musical directors who took a chance on these high school students. It is, of course, no easy task to manage a group of teenagers, let alone teenagers who bear no relation to you whatsoever and whom others call difficult. It takes a special kind of person to be able to believe in people who don’t believe in themselves, to mentor and inspire people whom others deem troublesome or delinquents. Dedicating six months’ worth of time and energy to a large group of teenagers, the three directors are truly the backbone of this musical production and the teenagers’ life-changing experiences.

Ultimately, “My Voice, My Life” is a gripping documentary that shows the free spirit and fierceness of an incredibly likable and charming cast and of Hong Kong’s upcoming generation of youngsters. Born in the mid-to-late-’90s, these youths think freely, dare to demand what they deserve and have an insatiable desire to do what they want. They are impassioned by their struggles and an optimism for the future. Knowing this, it is no wonder why Yang’s ragtag band of misfits came together to put on a successful musical and why so many student demonstrators took to the streets in 2014.

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