And a child shall lead them

Documentary examines how a scrawny teen from Hong Kong squares off against the forces of a world superpower

In 1989, the world was sent reeling following the horrifying massacre at Tiananmen Square, when the Communist regime of the People's Republic of China (as ironic today as it was all those years ago) ruthlessly mowed down hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy protesters. The massacre sent a stern message to the people of China as well as the entire world from the regime: the Communist Party will not be swayed by dissension of any kind, and will eliminate those standing in its way.

Which is why it was doubly surprising, then, when in 2012, a scrawny, 14-year-old Joshua Wong and his peers decided to stand up for their beloved Hong Kong by resisting the encroachment of the Communist Party. Hailed as the first successful activist protest in China, and the first one to be organised by high-school students, Wong's struggle for Hong Kong's governmental independence from communist China was recently chronicled in Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower, a Netflix-produced documentary following the movements of Scholarism, a youth activist group founded by Wong himself, and their growth from youth activists to shining beacons of hope for Hong Kong's democratic future.

Told largely through collected news footage and floating heads, the film opens with a contextualisation of China's history with regard to political protests, using the horrific images of Tiananmen Square to convey the heavy-handed authoritarianism of communist China, before transitioning to the handover of Hong Kong by the British 20 years ago in 1997, when the (in)famous "one-country-two-systems" model was agreed upon to placate the people of Hong Kong, who had enjoyed a democratic society for the past 150 years under British rule. China agreed to let Hong Kong remain a self-contained democracy for at least 50 years, a promise that is enacted only on paper as Beijing continues to appoint -- as opposed to elect -- Hong Kong's chief executive (the leading position in Hong Kong's government). The first act of the film begins in 2012 and introduces Wong, as he and the members of Scholarism hold public speeches and hand out flyers opposing the "national education" programme, a Beijing-mandated curriculum designed to teach nationalistic Chinese (or, in other words, communist) values to Hong Kong's youth.

This gradually escalates into an occupy-style protest, with a few dozen students camping out in front of the Central Government Building and refusing to leave until national education is negated. Hearing of Wong's cause and conviction through the media, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers flocked to join Wong's group over the course of the protest, which finally achieved victory when the government backed down and made national education a choice instead of a requirement.

The real film, however, begins towards the middle (the film is 78 minutes long), as Scholarism becomes a part of the wider Umbrella Movement in 2014, calling for true democracy in Hong Kong. There are other characters and speakers in the film that played a central part in the movements, but the focus remains largely on Wong. Director Joe Piscatella rightly keeps his own voice away from the film, letting the audience gradually get to know Wong through his actions, as well as the words of his supporters, admirers and critics, which only serves to make audiences appreciate Wong's gravitas all the better. While the results of the movement are a foregone conclusion, it's hard not to admire the courage of Wong and his group of friends. They rose up without any adults to guide them, let alone support them in their pursuit of a better future, bravely facing down tear gas and pepper spray from police.

Wong and his friends aren't particularly charming or eloquent speakers, nor do they possess the most commanding or charismatic presence. Wong himself comes from a regular family living in a small Hong Kong apartment, with typical Asian parents who tell him to focus on his grades and not think about relationships until college. He doesn't have money, or an influential parent, nothing that would single him out as remarkable. What he does have in spades, however, is a pure, righteous, rock-solid conviction to do right by his beloved home city, and future generations of Hong Kongers, something that is becoming increasingly rare in our world of corruption and apathy.

With a speaker phone, an iPad and some friends, a lower-middle-class high-school student who wasn't even old enough to drive was able to stand tall and firm, looking the Chinese government -- one of the world's most ruthless, most powerful governments -- squarely in the eye. And they blinked first.

Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower

A documentary film available on Netflix

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