Dystopian film Ten Years may prove oracular if those in power fail or refuse to address the genuine anxieties expressed in the film.
Photo: Lawmaker Kenneth Leung (梁繼昌) with Chow Kwun-wai (周冠威) and Ng Ka-leung (伍嘉良), directors of Ten Years, and actor Neo Yau Hok-sau (游學修) at a free screening of the film hosted by Leung (Credit: Office of the Hon Kenneth Leung)
Compared with blockbusters by big players in Hong Kong’s film industry, the production cost in the tune of HK$500,000 and the HK$6 million-some box office of dystopian work Ten Years is peanuts. But having scooped the award of Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday, Ten Years has emerged as a smash hit in Hong Kong, if not before, and is poised to hit the international film festival circuit. It has, among other events such as Occupy Central, caused more disquiet in the political scene and unease to the already-strained mainland-Hong Kong relations. Not without reason.
Composed of a series of five independently produced vignettes, Ten Years illustrates people’s worst fears of a near future (2025) under Chinese rule. The fourth part, self-immolator, features a protestor who set themselves on fire outside the British consulate. Another story shows the concern of a taxi driver losing his livelihood and the respect of his son as Cantonese is suppressed and diminished.
Despite a short general release with limited showings in several cinemas with most refused to screen it, talk about Ten Years has gone viral on social media, followed by mainstream media. Ironically, the cool response of cinema owners stemmed apparently from fears of political ramifications and the attacks by mainland mouthpieces have given free publicity for the film.
The official Global Times newspaper, which is known for its nationalistic tone and stance, has slammed the film as “totally absurd” and a “virus of the mind.”
The communist authorities and their loyalists in the city may dismiss the gloomy picture painted by the film as a piece of exaggeration. But coming at a time when the plight of bookseller Lee Po has become a real-life absurd drama, worrisome viewers of Ten Years fear they were watching the future from now.
Ten Years in the time of Lee Po
Lee returned to his North Point home last month almost three months after his wife reported to the police he went missing. Despite his repeated denials of being kidnapped by mainland security agents as rumoured, Lee refused to shed more light on how he used his “own means” to return to the mainland to assist an investigation about his business partner.
He had earlier admitted he was scared of visiting the mainland because of his book business, referring to the publication of books featuring the fierce power struggle in the corridors of power inside the Zhongnanhai compound, where the top Communist Party leaders reside. Writing on his Facebook in a visit to pay homage to his ancestors in the coast Fujian province, Lee was full of praises of the face-lifting changes of China.
The transformation of Lee from the boss of a bookstore that sells books about the ugly side of the Communist Party to a patriot-cum-salesman of the rising China has been greeted by his fellow citizens with disbelief and scorn.
If anything, the Lee Po saga has reinforced people’s fears the grim scenes of the city in 2025 envisaged in Ten Years could become reality. Importantly, the success of the film has inspired uneasy residents, convincing them that the way to dispel fears is not to ignore them, but to raise their concerns fearlessly.
Just like the opposition against Beijing’s set of restrictions over universal suffrage, the Ten Years phenomenon reflects a feeling of defiance against the Communist authorities’ repressive policy towards Hong Kong.
Anxiety of the stars
It is no coincidence that the rebellious mood has been demonstrated in the annual awards of the film industry, which has been seen as one of the local industries that is faced with a conundrum over dealing with an increasingly interventionist mainland authority.
With the domestic market shrinking and the mainland market the new land of opportunity, the local film industry has been keen to “go north.” But due to sharp differences in culture, values and systems, local film makers are faced with pressure for them to compromise over sensitive issues in their work for friendly relations with the mainland authorities. Some artists had suffered from boycotts in the mainland for having made pro-democracy remarks in public.
The vote for Ten Years as the Best Film by the adjudicators from the film and related sectors is a venting of their grievances and anger towards Beijing’s curbs over freedom of expression. As a collective action, no one voter can be singled out for retribution, but the collective message was a powerful one.
Announcing the Best Film award result, the film award association’s board of directors Derek Yee Tung-sing (爾冬陞), quoted the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to answer a question from award staff about whether Ten Years should be mentioned in the script of the ceremony: “The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
The victory of Ten Years has galvanised the mood of people, in particular those who support democracy, and reinforced their belief in the Hong Kong systems and Hong Kong way.
It is hardly surprising therefore the award has irked the pro-establishment, pro-Beijing camp. Some commentators and leading figures in the film industry slammed it as an award that put politics above professionalism. Some of them feared the award would give a fillip to the growth of pro-independence thinking in the city.
There is no denying the subject of Hong Kong independence has hit headlines recently. There are no indications, however, of a fundamental change of public opinion in their attitude about independence. Speaking at a conference at Tufts University, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang (陳方安生) said: “Hong Kong people do not want independence from China; they simply want to preserve the values, freedoms and lifestyle that make the city so special.” That is still true.
By speaking to the fears and anxieties of Hong Kongers, Ten Years has won their hearts and minds. It has given a powerful boost to the sense of belonging and identity of Hong Kong people. Official disapproval be damned, the film has emboldened the people to act to protect their free will and the values they cherish, for ten years and beyond.