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Documentary Review: 'Denise Ho: Becoming the Music'

Canto-Pop star Denise Ho is wonderfully profiled in Director Sue Williams' newest effort.

What is it about American pop stars? Why is it always so awkward when they step up and attempt to say something important? I have a theory: it’s our fault. We, the audience, the consumer, the fan, demand that our pop stars be relatable, they need to have themes that resonate on the widest possible spectrum. If an artist takes a confident stand on an issue, we become uncomfortable.

Americans have been bred over time to be angst ridden and uncertain. Thus, when we hear a pop stars confidently express a political statement, it triggers anxiety in us. Whether we agree with that stance or not, we are terrified of being proven wrong or, in internet parlance, p-owned. To make a statement, especially in the era of social media, is to have to end up defending yourself on more fronts than you can count.

Pop stars in other countries are not so inherently angst riddled and thus they are more capable of stating an opinion with earnest confidence. Case in point, Canto-Pop star Denise Ho. Denise Ho is everything so many of us claim to want in a pop star. Not only is she insanely talented, attractive and charismatic, she’s a thoughtful and intelligent advocate for important causes. Whether she is coming out of the closet to stand for gay rights in her home of Hong Kong or standing at the front of pro-democracy protests, Denise Ho appears to belong in any scene she is in.

That image is brilliantly captured in the new to on-demand cinema documentary, Denise Ho: Becoming the Song. Writer-Director Sue Williams delivers to us a comprehensive career retrospective for the famed activist, one that places Denise Ho in the remarkable context of the turmoil of Hong Kong which has, during the space of her rising career, moved from a province of the British, to a two state - one country rule, under China, to a last stand of democracy in the East. Denise Ho has been through it all.

Here is Denise Ho being arrested during a pro-democracy protest.

Denise Ho is defined in the genre of Canto-Pop, a name given to those who perform what resembles western pop music in Cantonese. It really is just that simple. And yet, Denise actually grew up in Toronto, Canada. Denise’s parents fled to Toronto in 1989, sensing that the deal Britain signed to hand over control of Hong Kong to China may sooner than later come to affect freedom of speech and basic human rights.

Being away from Hong Kong however, learning to speak both French and English flawlessly, did not prevent Denise from falling in love with the culture of Hong Kong. As a teenager, Denise discovered Canto-pop via the music of Hong Kong legend Anita Mui. At one time, Mui was bigger in China than any pop act in the world. She was an icon and an activist who performed alongside student protesters as far back as Tienanmen Square.

Returning to Hong Kong in the late 90’s, Denise appeared on a television talent show where she got to meet Mui. Three years later, with the year 2000 approaching, Denise wrote to Anita and asked to become her mentee. Mui recognized Denise’s talent and passion and agreed to take her on. Thus began a partnership in which Denise learned directly from the biggest star in China and for a time became doomed to linger in her shadow. That was before Mui’s tragic death from Cervical Cancer in 2003.

By then, Denise had released her first solo album but was busily recreating Mui in both music and style. Flashy costumes, choreography and stage play were her bread and butter but they weren’t who Denise really wanted to be. It would be until 2013 when Denise found the courage to be herself on stage and in song. From there she came out of the closet to support gay rights in Hong Kong and began to take to the streets in protest of the encroaching rule of Communist, mainland China.

Try to imagine a major American pop star having the earnestness and wherewithal to do what Denise Ho has done. First of all, they would be crucified by critics and fans alike. Only perhaps Beyonce can match what Denise Ho has done but Beyonce doesn’t have the Chinese communist regime threatening to disappear her if she continues tweeting about Black Lives Matter. It’s not a contest, but if it were, Denise Ho > all American pop stars combined.

For greater context, Denise Ho didn’t merely come out of the closet, she wrote music about LGBTQ characters. She wrote about her dreams of finding a woman to love. And, as heard in the documentary, Ho wrote a brilliant and bold song about a pair of closeted men who fall in love but due to social pressure, growing persecution, and fear, are unable to be together or express the depth of their love. The song is called Louis and Lawrence and if I could find a copy of the song on YouTube, I would include it. Somehow, Denise Ho's music is very tough to find without being able to read Chinese. She has no personal YouTube channel that I could locate. You will just have to see the documentary to hear the beauty of this song for yourself.

The style of Denise Ho: Becoming the Song is exciting. Writer-Director Sue Williams interviews numerous important HongKongers who underscore the bravery of Denise Ho while not making her out to be a saint or potential martyr. Denise herself comes off as a person of confidence and conviction. I would call her fearless but fear never appears to be any part of the equation for Denise. It is as if doing what is right and just, simply comes naturally to her. As if she’s saying to the world, ‘Why wouldn’t I stand up for freedom, human rights, or gay rights?'

In America, our pop stars measure their words and take stands where they can while carefully manicuring their images via brand managers and high paid consultants. Denise Ho effortlessly moves through the world being persecuted by the Chinese government and forced out of major marketing deals by craven corporations that fear losing Chinese market share. Denise downshifts from stadium crowds of thousands to intimate clubs in foreign markets, with remarkable grace. She is currently banned from performing in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song is available now via distributor Kino Lorber’s Digital Cinema portal

movie review
Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick
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Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for nearly 20 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 9 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new.

See all posts by Sean Patrick

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