Early in the documentary Hooligan Sparrow, director Nanfu Wang is recording a small protest of women’s rights activists, and she turns to the crowd watching the gathering. A man drives by on a scooter, with small children sitting on either side of him. Other footage from the day reveals this same man approaching the activists and taking one of their fliers, giving further credence to Wang’s worries that secret police have swarmed the protest. The director turns out to be wrong about the man on the scooter, but the doc offers plenty of evidence that Wang’s paranoia is justified. At that same protest, plainclothes police take her picture, and shortly after, the director and her family are being harassed by hired thugs and police officers.
Wang’s film loosely chronicles a harrowing instance of bureaucratic corruption, but the locus of its hard-won paranoia is one of China’s most famous activists, Ye Haiyan. Nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow, Ye became a social media cause célèbre after offering free sex and condoms to migrant workers in order to cast a light on the plight of female sex workers in Chinese cities. After pushing for legalized prostitution, Ye and a small cell of human rights workers are again galvanized by a major scandal on the Chinese island of Hainan, where news breaks that a school principal has used pre-teen children as sex pawns in a scheme to bribe government officials.
Hooligan Sparrow is a work of straightforward social activism, but by simply documenting the perils of speaking out in China, it complicates rosy ideas about citizen journalism. Cameras and smartphones are everywhere in the film, and they’re multivalent weapons: they unflinchingly document abusive police practice, but they also allow the police to identify the filmmaker as a suspect in anti-government actions; they create viral content, but they also store the video wills protesters record before heading into the streets. One sequence shows the women avowing that they “did not commit suicide,” in the event they’re detained and disappeared by cops. Wang uses her footage both to advocate and, in the case of the man on the scooter and other suspicious figures, to interrogate her own assumptions. The effect is occasionally bracing, and eminently valuable. These ubiquitous cameras may cause as much trouble and suspicion as they avert, but the film demonstrates that they’re essential to holding the government accountable for its wrongs.
The film’s noble aims are mirrored in its more frustrating and conventional qualities, chief among them the wanting characterization of Hooligan Sparrow. Wang devotes ample time to Ye’s social media exploits and the ordeals she encounters as a public figure. After fleeing a group of goons who raid her offices, Ye and her 13-year-old daughter leave their home; they’re evicted from a new apartment, and are then quickly kicked out of a string of hotels. With the government tenaciously on her tail, Ye remains serene, but Wang never delves into the woman’s motivations or her struggles, rendering her little more than a supremely capable avatar for contemporary protest movements.
Wang largely uses the film’s jerky, low-grade imagery to her advantage, amplifying the tension of Kafkaesque encounters with police, but her aesthetic has its limitations. Her assiduous approach to chronology results in a lack of narrative cohesion: Instead of exploiting the culture of corruption that binds Ye’s ordeals with the police and the burgeoning scandal in Hainan, the film becomes increasingly choppy, beholden to offering reams of dry voiceover exposition. But Hooligan Sparrow’s final revelation is an instance of pure journalism. Reviewing her footage once more, Wang decisively identifies the man on the scooter and ultimately tracks him down, resulting in an interview that allows the film to finally address what it feels like to be under the thumb of China’s wide-ranging, state-sanctioned surveillance network, and how much bravery is required to speak out against it.