Human Rights Arts & Film Festival Review: Hooligan Sparrow (China, 2016)

There are a LOT of crazy, yet infuriating stories that happen in Communist China. Some of the stories include an annual dog-eating festival to its catastrophic levels of pollution to hundreds of dead pigs in rivers and many others – but none of them had prepared me for this hard-hitting and shocking documentary.

When I first heard about this film and its subject matter, the factor that intrigued me about it was not the exploration of the subject, but how the filmmaker got away with the footage she had from a place that is very strict with its censorship rules and communist rule. That alone made it a must-see for me. So imagine my surprise to see the footage director Wang Nanfu compiled in Hooligan Sparrow.

The film starts off with Wang holding her digital SLR phone camera. The camera captures a bunch of young men who are whispering and glancing until a scuffle happens between Wang and the group of men, trying to retrieve the camera. With such a gripping and suspenseful moment as the intro of the film, it hooks the audience and it keeps up the tension throughout.

The documentary follows Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow, and her group of activists, who are protesting a case where six public-school girls were sexually abused by their principal. In the case, the corrupt bureaucracy of education and government favoured the accused and are now targeting Ye for her actions in exposing the injustice.

Ye Haiyan is famous for her unorthodox methods of activism like offering sex at one of China’s brothels for free, even targeting the principal. The media swarmed over that story and it gained her impossibly high levels of notoriety, conveying the conditions of China’s sex-service industry.

The story follows director Wang as much as it follows Ye, since she follows Ye around for her documentary, she is also being targeted by the government to the point where she is threatened to be beaten up and she is forced to hide, fearing for her safety as well as questioning whether her footage would ever make it out of China.

After the protests, Ye is assaulted in her home and is then arrested for attempting to defend herself. Wang accompanies Ye’s lawyer, Wang Yu, to the prison in an attempt to visit her, but they are denied entry.

On this occasion, the public outcry and media attention results in Sparrow’s quick release. However, she continues to be followed and is intimidated by a bunch of thugs presumably in the pay of the government and is eventually hounded out of her home. At one point, she says “You can kill me, but you can’t kill the truth.”

The camerawork, while unpolished and inescapably sloppy, adds urgency and a kind of down-to-earth feel that makes the documentary immersive and, at times, makes it feel like a found-footage thriller. The revelations that come from the footage are shocking to behold, like an incredibly stupefying law that rape is life in prison but if you were involved in underage prostitution, the sentence is much lower.

Even when Ye was attacked by a bunch of thugs and the police became involved, the police stated that “Don’t make such a fuss, it could’ve been murder.” Statements like that are littered throughout and are delivered in such a mannered tone, that it would send chills.

A sense of paranoia is also present throughout the film, as ANYONE could be considered a government spy. As director Wang states at one point in the film, a man with five children on the motorbike could potentially be a spy.

As much as flaws go, the film is not professionally produced as other documentaries and Wang does over-rely on narration to get her point across, especially when she tries to manipulate the audience on who to suspect, but when you get footage as palpable and revealing as this that SOMEHOW got away from the Chinese government, Hooligan Sparrow must been seen by the widest audience possible.

Oh, by the way, on a comforting note, children can be offered as “gifts” to government officials. Oh, did I say “comforting”? I meant “infuriating”.


The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is taking place from the 5th of May to the 8th of June. More info available here.


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Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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