Born and raised in Hong Kong, Simon Liu is a film artist who seeks to build a catalogue of the rapidly evolving physical, political and emotional landscape of his place of origin. His analogue-based experimental film practice comprises abstract diary films, multi-channel video installations, and 16mm multiple-projection performances. In Focus: Simon Liu presents a body of short films made between 2014 and 2024 amid the ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong. Liu layers images and sounds to create dense and highly personal studies of the city in flux. He applies visual interventions in the filming, chemical development, and printing processes to disrupt spatial and temporal flows, overlapping his own memories with older colonial histories against the new textures of the current socio-political landscape. As Pan Lu writes, Liu’s films “attempt to avoid bonding Hong Kong onto any singular image, and this entanglement with a surreal parallel universe belongs precisely to Hong Kong’s ‘(sur)realism’.” 

Simon Liu’s work has been exhibited at institutions including the Whitney Biennial 2024, Museum of Modern Art, MOCA Los Angeles, SFMoMA, The Shed, PICA, New York Film Festival, New Directors / New Films, CPH:DOX, Sundance and Tai Kwun Contemporary, and screened at festivals globally including TIFF Wavelengths, Rotterdam, Jeonju, Cinéma du Réel, Punto de Vista and Viennale.

It’s (not) all about Hong Kong: Simon Liu’s Analogue Adventures in Non-Linear Time

By Pan Lu

Hong Kong is a city obsessed with linear progress in film technology (or any technology, for that matter). A few years ago, a friend of mine involved in independent screenings in Hong Kong acquired a collection of film projection equipment from cinemas at a very low cost. He treasured these items, but for the cinemas it was a relief that someone was willing to take away their “trash”. Throughout the history of film production in Hong Kong there have been very few filmmakers who have been interested in working with obsolete media, so it was a shock when I first encountered the work of Simon Liu. He had been invited by M+ Cinema in 2018, before the venue had been fully completed, to present a dual 16mm projection performance of Harbour City (2015). At the time, I was working on my own essay film about the spatial history of Hong Kong and the opening scene also featured the Harbour City shopping mall. I was amazed by how different his rendering of the theme was to my own and I found in Liu’s piece an innovative power and experimentality that I hadn’t seen in Hong Kong cinema for a long time. 

In the context of the current decline of commercial Hong Kong cinema, Hong Kong film studies has also reached an impasse. Apart from commercial productions and the art house films of directors like Wong Kar-wai, are there no other genres within Hong Kong cinema that can be re-examined and embraced? Simon Liu’s “looking back” works, mostly shot on 16mm or 35mm formats, not only provide a thought-provoking response to this question but also to the far broader question of “what is Hong Kong?”. There is a tendency today to trace the current situation in Hong Kong back to the Handover in 1997. During the British colonial period, the story always began with the First Opium War in 1842 when a small fishing village on the southern coast of China transformed into an international financial metropolis. However, perhaps we need to examine the city’s history from an even earlier moment, and not overlook the series of other factors that are so often glossed over in the “village-turned-metropolis” narrative: its relationship with southern China; its entanglement with British colonisers; its connections with Shanghai immigrants and Southeast Asian immigrants; the invisible Cold War; leftist and new leftist movements; its connection with Taiwan, global capitalism, and so on. It is nearly impossible to capture Hong Kong in a single image (such as the night view of Victoria Harbour), but the image of this bustling capitalist society continues to haunt Hong Kong, lingering persistently. 

Simon Liu’s works – many of which are sketch-like depictions of the urban landscape of Hong Kong – attempt to break the long-standing duopoly of the official representation and the Hong Kong of Wong Kar-wai, in which the city appears as a nostalgic form of Shanghai. The former has become what Nicholas Mirzoeff (The Right to Look, 2011) refers to as “visuality”, which solidifies our imagination of the city and restricts other possibilities. Simon Liu’s “reuse” of materiality can itself be seen as a resistance against the cliched ways of writing Hong Kong’s history, its visual history, and its film history. The graininess of the film medium is in stark contrast with the familiar glittering image of Hong Kong. Liu’s moving images become what Mirzoeff describes as “inverse visuality”, in which “the subjectivity of the viewer is called into question by the density or opacity of what he or she sees. These flickering, excessive, hyperreal, overlaid, pixelated, disjunctive, and distracting moments are spectral dust in the eyes of visuality that cause it to blink and become momentarily unsighted” (Mirzoeff, 2006). His films attempt to avoid bonding Hong Kong onto any singular image, and this entanglement with a surreal parallel universe belongs precisely to Hong Kong’s “(sur)realism”. Even though the images in a few earlier works may flow between scenes of Tokyo, Los Angeles, or the British countryside, as Liu’s personal images, they are inseparable from Hong Kong. 

Watching Liu’s films always raises the same question in my mind: which Hong Kong is more (sur)real, the one in the film or the one I live in? For a long time (and perhaps even now), there has been a lack of discussion within Hong Kong cinema and contemporary visual arts about the relationship between everyday life and the capitalist city. It has been challenging to find works that criticize the capitalist system or that seek to reveal the well-orchestrated colonial modernity the Special Administrative Region inherited from its colonial past. In Simon Liu’s experimental works, we see a sense of fragmentation and powerlessness behind the facade of the glossy and vibrant city.  

I am particularly fascinated by Liu’s treatment of sound in his films, including noise, ambient sounds, voices, and music. These sounds are organically combined with the scratched texture of the images and the pop art aesthetic of flickering lights and shadows. In many cases, the cultural and political tensions and contradictions of the city emerge in the interplay between fleeting images, noise, and sound. 

Returning to the question of film genre; it is not widely known that Hong Kong has a history of experimental cinema. The first wave of experimental filmmakers in Hong Kong emerged around 1967 during the leftist social movement that drastically shaped the city’s future. Among those filmmakers were students, film enthusiasts, writers, and salon photographers. The works of these filmmakers reflected the unspoken frustration and confusion that the youth experienced in the post-1967 period, when they grappled with their identities amid the shifting socio-political landscape. One of the most well-known figures from this group is John Woo, who later gained worldwide fame for his action films. However, their experimental films have rarely been discussed.  

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Liu’s works since 2019 have been related to post-movement Hong Kong. In contrast to the explicit portrayal of trauma in many of the “post-movement” visual works to have emerged during the same period, Liu’s clever and profound films present the city’s enormous changes in a more abstracted manner. The non-linear narrative and everydayness of experimental cinema dissolve the limitations of language in logical storytelling. Instead of distinguishing between urban everyday life, personal memories, and political movements, Liu allows them to freely intertwine into an aesthetic of the present moment. And this, in itself, can be a potent political force.

PAN Lu is a researcher and filmmaker. She is Associate Professor at Department of Chinese Culture at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.