July 26, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sue Williams
Some language in Cantonese with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in China (and partially in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom), the documentary “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” has mostly Asians (and a few white people) discussing the life of pop singer/activist Denise Ho.
Culture Clash: Because she is an outspoken activist against China’s Communist control of Hong Kong, Ho has been banned from China and has lost the majority of her star income due to this ban and because sponsors have dropped her.
Culture Audience: “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” will appeal primarily to Cantopop fans and people who like documentaries about social activists.
How many politically outspoken celebrity entertainers would continue to be as outspoken if it meant that they would lose the vast majority of the income that they’ve been used to getting? This hypothetical question is the reality that singer Denise Ho has been living since 2014, when Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests against China’s Communist control ignited a political awakening in her that resulted in her being banned from China, the main source of her income. The compelling documentary “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” takes an up-close look at Denise Ho’s journey of stepping out from behind a manufactured pop-star image and showing the world her true self, even if it means she has to sacrifice a lot of money and personal safety.
Skillfully directed by Sue Williams, “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” has the expected biographical details of Ho’s rise to stardom, but the movie gets a lot more interesting when it covers Ho’s social and political activism. Several people are interviewed for the film, including Ho; her mother Janny Ho; her father Henry Ho; and her brother Harris Ho, who is a keyboardist in Denise’s band.
Also interviewed are Asian history specialist Geoffrey Ngo of Georgetown University; John Tsang, former private secretary to Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong; Victoria Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; Margaret Ng, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council from 1995 to 2012; Jelly Cheng, Denise’s production coordinator; singer Kiri T; and John Tsang, who was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 2007 to 2017.
Born in 1997 in Hong Kong, Denise spent her formative teenage years in Montreal. Coming of age in Canada had a major influence on her, she says in the documentary, because being in a democratic country that is socially liberal, compared to many other countries, made her realize how precious and crucial the freedoms of a democracy are.
“Canada changed me completely,” Denise says in the film. The emotional impact of her time in Montreal can be seen in a scene in the documentary where she is performing her song “Montreal” in front of a theater-sized crowd, and she breaks down in tears several times before she can begin the song.
Denise’s biggest celebrity idol was Cantopop singer Anita Mui, an entertainer known for her elaborate costumes and unapologetic feminist sex appeal. Denise said that she was so obsessed with Mui that she would even do things such as cut out Mui’s name from newspapers and magazines, just so she could add it to her collection of Anita Mui memorabilia. Denise says that in the 1980s, Mui was bigger in Hong Kong and China than Madonna was.
Denise and her parents say that Denise was fairly shy when she was growing up and didn’t really show an interest in being a professional entertainer. That changed when Denise was about 15 years old, and she got chance to be a singer in a group of young people doing a charity performance on TV. Denise says that having a solo in the performance boosted her confidence and that’s when she knew that she liked being in the spotlight.
Despite winning a nationally televised talent contest in 1996, Denise’s career stalled because she didn’t get a record deal right away. She eventually signed to Capital Artists, a record company that she says didn’t really know what to do with her. The contest gave Denise a chance to meet her idol Mui, and Denise (though a lot of persistence) eventually became one of Mui’s backup singers.
Mui became an important mentor to Denise, who released her first EP (aptly titled “First”) in 2001. It became an instant hit, with confident anthems, such as “Thousands More of Me” and “Home of Glory.” After Capital Artists shuttered, Denise signed to EMI, where her career continued to flourish, with hit songs such as “Angel Blues” and “Goodbye … Rosemary.”
But tragedy struck, when Mui died in 2003 of cervical cancer, at the age of 40. Denise said she felt “lost” without her mentor. She adds, “After Anita died, I felt the burden of picking up what she left behind.” Denise continued to have hits, but her on-stage persona was very much in the same mold as Mui.
Denise says of living in the shadow of Mui: “For 10 years, I tried to live on her legacy in the very wrong way, I guess. It was very mixed feelings. I am still very honored to be her disciple, but I really wanted to build my own uniqueness.”
Production coordinator Cheng remembers a performance in 2013, when Denise sang Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and literally shed her costume and sang the song as herself, not as an Anita Mui tribute act. It was a turning point in Denise’s career.
At this point, Denise’s metamorphosis included being more publicly vocal about social issues. In 2008, she did an album called “Ten Days in the Madhouse” and the independent documentary titled “The Decameron,” which focused on mental-health patients struggling to survive in Hong Kong society. Although the movie flopped, she says that it was an important learning experience for her.
Then, in 2012, Denise came out as a lesbian during the annual Hong Kong Pride Parade. She never tried to hide or deny her sexuality when she was famous (some of her song lyrics were love songs to women, and one of her biggest hits was the gay-themed “Lawrence and Lewis”), but she never publicly declared her sexuality until she officially came out of the closet during this Pride event. In doing so, she became the first openly gay female pop star from Hong Kong. In the documentary, neither Denise nor anyone else talks about any of her past or present love interests.
In 2014, she joined in the Umbrella Movement’s pro-democracy protests (mostly involving students and other young people) against the Communist government of China, which gained control of Hong Kong after the territory was under British rule from 1841 to 1997. The Umbrella Movement gets its name because protestors use umbrellas to fight off violence and water-hose deterrents from police officers. The key issues of the movement’s protests are the Chinese government’s changes to any democratic laws, civil rights, and political processes that the people of Hong Kong had previously had for centuries.
Denise became a public figure speaking out against Communist China and participated in the protests in 2014. She was arrested and eventually banned from China, where she says she made about 80-90% of her income, through live performances and sponsorship deals. Over the next two years, major corporate sponsors, including Pepsi and Lancôme, cut ties with her. Her record-company contract was not renewed. She says that she also received several direct and indirect threats to stop speaking out about her political beliefs.
According to Denise, several businesses (including former sponsors based in Western countries) that will no longer work with her have blacklisted her not necessarily because he Chinese government told them to but because these companies have decided to “self-censor” by distancing themselves from her because she’s been labeled as too controversial.
“Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” includes footage of Denise, who is now an independent artist self-financing her own tours, doing performances in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. At the height of her music career, she was headlining stadiums in Asia. As an independent artist, she now headlines theater-sized venues.
The movie includes Ho’s first-ever performance in New York City, where she did a show at Town Hall in October 2019. By contrast, the documentary shows the last time that Ho headlined a stadium was in 2016 at Hong Kong Coliseum, for her series of Dear Friend concerts, which was financed mainly through crowdfunding.
Also included is footage of Denise on the streets of Hong Kong with protestors when the Umbrella Movement street protests surged again in 2019. Even if her social activism has come at a high financial cost to her, it’s clear that she at least now feels free to be completely herself and commit herself to a higher purpose than just money and fame.
Under the matter-of-fact direction of Williams, the documentary isn’t overstuffed with too many political talking heads, but keeps the focus where it should be: on Denise Ho and how she is living her life. The movie doesn’t portray her as a martyr but as someone who understands that her political activism has come with a cost to a lot of comforts that she previously had. And it’s clear that Denise thinks the sacrifice, although sometimes difficult, has been worth it.
In the documentary, Denise doesn’t express any regrets about being an outspoken and very involved social/political activist. She gives a lot of credit to her immediate family members (who definitely stand by her) and Buddhism for helping her stay emotionally healthy. Denise says that Buddhism is “where my confidence and optimism come from.” And she has this final thought on what the future might hold for the causes she’s fighting for: “One of my strongest beliefs is that humanity always wins.”
Kino Lorber released “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 1, 2020.