Jun Li’s latest project Drifting is based on the true events of 2012 when attention was brought to the plight of the homeless population of Hong Kong after several high-profile cases of eviction and harassment by the city’s police and government.
Hong Kong screen legend Francis Ng leads this incredible cast as Fai, a man newly released from prison as he re-joins his community of ‘street-sleepers’. The police without prior notice or warning begin evicting members of the community and disposing of their belongings. Fai becomes the de facto leader as their case gains more prominence in the media, and they are helped by social worker Miss Ho (Cecilia Choi).
Another Hong Kong legend, Tse Kwan-ho plays Master, a Vietnamese ‘boat-person’ who has been separated from his family. His virtual reunion with his Vietnamese son is poignantly familiar to so many of us who have relied on virtual methods to connect with our loved ones during this pandemic. Master’s story is among the most tragic, and a reminder that these are real lives at stake.
Will Or plays Muk, a silent newcomer to the community who plays his harmonica and observes his surroundings silently. He’s a wordless observer to the world he’s found himself in, and is taken in by Fai before ultimately reuniting with his family. His character is a stand-in for us as viewers, as we are given the opportunity to see the community from an outside lens.
Throughout the movie, as the case of the ‘street-sleepers’ gains more prominence in the media, various other groups of people attempt to interact with them. Some mean well and genuinely try to help, such as those offering to teach basic life skills and ways to make a living. Others, such as the university students, are more interested in simply taking pictures of themselves having an adventure among a community so often othered and almost exoticized.
Ultimately, this community of people living on the streets are required to rely on one another. The spirit of genuine community is palpable through the entire story. Viewers will no doubt admire that in spite of all of the circumstances that have brought them to where they are, be that past trauma, addictions, or joblessness, they have developed a community so strong and resilient out of sheer necessity. The harsh realities of addiction, mental illness, and realities of living without stable housing is never shied away from.
When the Hong Kong government proposes a settlement with the ‘street-sleepers’, all but Fai are in agreement to accept it. Fai’s sense of justice is so strong, that he considers the offer an insult and an example of those in a position of power preferring to figuratively sweep his community out of sight and out of mind.
There are no happy endings here, and the movie’s end is horrifying to watch. Yet we know, this is reality for so many society would rather ignore. In the post-credits scene, we’re told that this movie was not only based upon true events, but that this is still very much a current crisis facing Hong Kong’s homeless population today.
Finally, the context in which this movie was made cannot be missed. Drifting was filmed in 2019, during the unprecedented social movement that swept through Hong Kong and gained the attention of the world, and which continues today. Li stated that the movement inspired the ending of the film, a piercing indictment against the apathy that has characterized so much of the world’s response to Hong Kong and the plight of its people.
Although Drifting is a story specifically about the homeless population of Hong Kong, it compels all viewers to re-examine how we view those society has deemed outcasts, how we remain complicit in their suffering, and what actions we need to take to commit to a more just world.
Reel Asian is a Toronto film festival with year-round programming highlighting Asian and Diaspora stories.