‘Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?’ Review: A Vivid if Bleak Update on the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Front

Joe Piscatella’s 2017 “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” offered a fairly exhilarating view of youth activism, as it charted one Hong Kong student’s spearheading public opposition to mainland China’s increasingly heavy-handed takeover. The can-do optimism that documentary left viewers with is on life support in the director’s follow-up, which shifts nominal focus to one of Joshua Wong’s fellow protest leaders. But mostly “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” observes the gradual crushing of a pro-democracy movement that not long ago had promised to engage Beijing in genuine dialogue. This equally skillful if much more downbeat sequel should follow its predecessor to wide travel on the festival circuit, then broadcast and streaming exposure. 

Law was a college freshman when he first met then-high school students Wong and so-called “princess of democracy” Agnes Chow. The trio became perhaps the most identifiable faces in a largely youth-driven cause that rose up initially in objection to new Communist minders’ decrees towards academia, then broadened and gained steam as yet more restrictive policies were introduced. It became rapidly clear that Beijing had little intention of granting Hong Kong citizens the relative autonomy they’d been promised. 

The documentary’s first third basically retraces the earlier film’s events, in which resistance atypical for this culture spiraled into massive marches involving one, then two million participants. For a while, it seemed the “Umbrella Movement” (named for participants’ choice of defense against pepper spray) might really make the mainland monolith reconsider its course. 

Alas, that turned out to be a false hope. Apparently afraid that giving an inch on Hong Kong might prove a “launching pad for a democratic revolution in China,” as one observer here puts it, Party leadership clamped down with unprecedented physical force, raising queasy fears of “another Tiananmen Square.” 

Considered by some “the brains” of the youth movement, Law ran for a Legislative Council seat at age 23. Though his campaign was scoffed at, he won, becoming the youngest such winner ever. But the hopes that pro-democracy forces might thus be able to create change from within were promptly dashed when Beijing’s appointed figures invented a new rule they used to retroactively disqualify all political opponents from office. 

Then laws were introduced threatening those even suspected of dissent with mainland extradition, causing another huge uproar as well as heightened violence between protestors, police and (it was rumored) gangsters hired to rough up agitating citizens. The infamous 2020 National Security Law further introduced “all the instruments of a police state [to] put Hong Kong in handcuffs,” says Chris Patten, the territory’s last Governor under British oversight. 

Journalists were now openly targeted, protestors labeled “terrorists,” and their leaders threatened with deportation, imprisonment or worse. Bookending “Afraid” are scenes that show the quietly well-spoken Law (talking English, like nearly everyone here) being interviewed in some empty building interior, whereabouts unknown for security reasons. He has cause to fear kidnapping. Extremely broad recent decrees would rubber-stamp that or any other means of putting “radicals” on trial for just about anything that could be construed as anti-state, punishable by incarceration up to “life.” There’s a simple reason Law is the main figure here: Chow and Wong, as well as many other activists who didn’t flee in time, are either in prison or muzzled post-release. Overt defiance has been largely, and literally, exiled.

As in “Joshua,” all this is told in a fast-paced mix of personal reminiscence (including from select outside press and political figures), handheld cellphone footage, and worldwide TV news reportage. The sum effect is just as engaging — only rather than exciting faith in the individual’s ability to generate change, the course of history here shows individuality ground under by a seemingly all-powerful state. At the end, Nathan Law is still an active voice of resistance, but admits suffering “survivor guilt” even in remaining at liberty to do so. 

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