Film: “Ten Years” (十年) a bleak depiction of Hong Kong’s future

In late 2014, a controversial documentary made its world premiere at one of Asia’s most prominent film festivals, and has seen limited release ever since.  The number of screenings was limited to just two, with no related press conferences at the event.

In late 2015, a controversial film was released in a small number of theaters, then promptly disappeared from the big screen.  It later was included in the program at another one of Asia’s most prominent film festivals.  The number of screenings there was limited to just one, with no related press conferences at the event.

The differences in impact from both films, though, are quite marked.  The fallout from “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” continues to focus on the Busan International Film Festival and not the film itself, with the budget for the event slashed by nearly half for the 2015 edition followed by a non-renewal of the director’s contract.  Festivals around the world continue to rally behind Busan, but the event faces the very real possibility of being canceled this year.

Meanwhile, in the case of the fictional “Ten Years” (十年), the focus remains on its depiction of what Hong Kong could look like in the year 2025.  Perhaps it could have been a different story had the movie premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), but even its limited theatrical release created a stir, particularly after its box office numbers exceeded those of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which came out the same weekend.  Then, as suddenly as the box office numbers rang up, “Ten Years” vanished from theaters.  After the movie was nominated for Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, live broadcasts of the ceremony in mainland China were called off.

The Hong Kong community, in response, rallied.  On April 1, various groups decided to host screenings all across Hong Kong for those who had missed the film.  At one of those venues, the steps at the intersection of Tai Ping Shan Road and Pound Lane, about 200 people endured knee pain, craned their necks to read English subtitles and squinted to watch the indie wonder play out on a makeshift cloth screen.

 

It would be tempting to tout the quality of “Ten Years” based on its messaging alone, but even if art did not imitate life, the film is an exquisitely shot and acted work in its own right.  The omnibus opens with Kwok Zune’s “Extras” (浮瓜), which switches between two sets of negotiations: a couple of sacrificial underlings practicing an assassination and government officials pre-negotiating national security law terms ahead of a May Day public panel.  Confusion prevails when the terms continue to change, leaving the two ordered to make the mock – real? – kill as the extras holding the bag, a reference to the title, their societal status in Hong Kong and their fates.

“Season of the End” (冬蟬), directed by Wong Fei-Pang, is the least accessible of the five films, partly due to a more abstract handling of its message.  Adopting a science fiction tone, a couple pours over artifacts and shards, many of these remnants from homes destroyed by bulldozers.  Insomnia and panic set in as the man and woman try to separate the reality of the present from the memories of the past, and fight to save what they think will be lost forever.  The portrayal of their despair and rather wooden delivery, however, cause the viewer to feel a bit disconnected from the couple’s inner turmoil.

The film snaps back to more relatable dialogue with Jevons Au’s “Dialect” (方言), a dark comedy of sorts where Putonghua – the formal term for Mandarin – has overtaken Cantonese as the main Chinese dialect in Hong Kong.  Taxi driver Hank is a direct victim of this regulation.  Economically, he is barred from picking up passengers at key transit points because he only knows Cantonese, and psychologically, he is isolated by a society that is effectively wiping out an entire language.  He realizes that he cannot understand his own Mandarin-educated son, and his vehicle is required by law to bear a decal stating that he cannot speak Putonghua.  It’s a simultaneously amusing and biting observation by Au, who has been a screenwriter for several Johnnie To films (“Drug War,” “Vengeance,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Romancing in Thin Air”).

Chow Kwun-wai’s “Self-immolator” (自焚者) probably should have been presented as the last film of “Ten Years” for greater effect.  Even so, its impact was immediately felt by a number of attendees at the Tai Ping Shan Road outdoor community screening – including this reviewer – who shed tears as the story was told.  Presented as a fictional documentary, a history of the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China is recounted as an ominous ocean of clouds threatens to envelop the former British colony.  With the act of self-immolation presented early on, various parties struggle to figure out who did it while an intense debate from proponents and opponents of Hong Kong’s independence from China simmers.  Protests against the central government, calls for universal suffrage, opinions from minorities in Hong Kong who long for citizenship and references to the 2014-2015 Umbrella Movement are just a few of the current topics packed into an emotionally-charged oeuvre that descends into paranoia and conspiracy theories put forth by the characters.  When the true self-immolator is revealed, the effect is no less than powerful.

The final film of the omnibus, Local Egg” (本地蛋), serves as a semi-brake on the emotions overflowing from Chow’s film, but is equally thought-provoking.  Helmed by Ng Ka-leung, the mastermind of the “Ten Years” project, the story observes the consequences of the closure of Hong Kong’s last chicken farm, forcing store owner Sam (Liu Kai-Chi) to look elsewhere for eggs to sell.  In an increasingly distrustful society where banned books are stowed in secret hiding places and children are encouraged to report suspicious unpatriotic activities to government authorities, Sam finds that his own son is in the thick of a loosening grip of Hong Kong identity as freedom of speech tightens.  “Don’t do exactly what you are told,” Sam tells a quartet of Youth Guard schoolchildren, but his advice may be too late.

“Ten Years” may be a powerfully bleak way to ponder the future of Hong Kong, but Ng didn’t see it any other way with this project.  “What we have captured in the film is not a future we want to see,” the “Local Egg” director confirmed in an interview published in the HKIFF official catalog.  “There is no happy ending.  We are like the two underlings in “Extras”; if we do not have a clear understanding of what is going on, it will be difficult to get out of our present predicament…Rather than magnifying the positive, the film is pervaded with a feeling of pessimism.”

“Ten Years” screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and won Best Film at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards.  It screens at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival on Mon., July 4, at 9 p.m.  All five directors and producer Andrew Choi will attend the screening for a Q&A session.