Hong Kong’s unexpected box office hit: A dystopian film on city’s political future
It is a vision of Hong Kong in which assassinations are staged to cow the citizenry into accepting mainland China’s national security law. Desperate democracy fighters lay down their lives. Grade schoolers are brainwashed by the government and unleashed as a brood of political attack dogs.
Hong Kong’s movie market has long been ruled by action flicks and slapstick comedies that afford the audience in this semi-autonomous Chinese territory a relief from reality. But a low-budget independent film that confronts moviegoers with a stark, dystopian vision of their city’s near-future has recently become an unexpected box office hit.
The overtly political “Ten Years” is composed of five shorts set in 2025 -- all carrying clear echoes of the turbulent past, both distant and recent, that most Hong Kongers are familiar with.
A former British colony of 7.3 million people, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule 19 years ago under a transitional framework known as “one country, two systems,” which allowed the territory to maintain its civil liberties and a high degree of autonomy until 2046.
“Ten Years,” an anthology film (see the trailer), envisions Hong Kong a decade from now, when the territory will be more than halfway through the planned 50-year transition toward integration with mainland China. With increasing political meddling by Beijing in recent years and a growing sense that Hong Kong’s leaders listen more to the mainland than to local residents, however, anxiety about Hong Kong being subsumed sooner has been growing.
“This is our attempt to somberly confront our worst fears, regardless of possible repercussions,” said Ng Ka-leung, a producer and director on the film. “So together we took this leap of faith. All we wanted was to stimulate introspections in our society on the way forward.”
To that end, the directors imagine the unimaginable. For example, in the segment called “Self-Immolator,” written and directed by Chow Kwun-wai, a 21-year-old is imprisoned for spearheading a campaign to make Hong Kong a democratic state apart from China, then dies on a hunger strike. His death touches off the first ever self-immolation in Hong Kong — at the doorstep of the British Consulate, no less.
As if this weren’t provocative enough, Chow wrote one of the most oft-cited lines in the film: “Hong Kongers have yet to win democracy because no one is willing to die for it.”
“When I wrote this,” Chow recalled, “I slapped myself on the cheek and asked: ‘How would this ever happen in Hong Kong?’ People here are simply too pragmatic to sacrifice themselves.” But the line stayed because “I wanted to cause some soul-searching.”
Finding actors to deliver such dialogue, Chow discovered, wasn’t easy. He was turned down by several professional actors, some of whom told him that doing so would mean being shut out of the mainland film market. One actor walked out after he read the script and found it too politically charged. Chow, an instructor at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts who has made a feature film and several shorts, said the response was a first in his 11 years as a director.
“While I can’t make others not to fear,” said Chow, “the least I can do is to not succumb to self-censorship.”
Censorship is the theme of “Local Egg,” the short by Ng about the last chicken farm in Hong Kong being forced to close. In the segment, brigades of grade schoolers are cast as the modern reincarnation of Mao Zedong’s rampaging Red Guards of the 1960s and ’70s, with the children donning red scarves and olive green army fatigues. Their after-school activity is to patrol local shops and report any use of banned words.
For those who would criticize that as hyperbole, Ng said it wasn’t so farfetched to depict the government plotting to brainwash the next generation. He pointed to a brouhaha that erupted in 2012 when Hong Kong officials began a push for a “patriotic curriculum” in city schools. Education officials shelved the plan after a massive summer protest by students and parents.
“Ten Years” addresses fears not just about political domination, but also concerns that Hong Kong’s cultural distinctiveness is being eroded by the growing dominance of mainland Chinese.
The short “Dialect,” directed by Jevons Au, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ summer program, dramatizes the marginalization of the local Cantonese dialect by the Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese, abetted by government policies. Cabbies who don’t get with the Mandarin program are sidelined and even penalized.
Fears that Hong Kong’s unique culture is being eroded — and a sense that government officials are indifferent to the needs of the grassroots — underpinned a real-life melee this week in the city’s Mong Kok district. Police clashed with vendors at a night market and the situation turned bloody after a group of activists and others intervened in support of the hawkers, vowing to defend grass-roots interests in the face of local officials seen as eager to acquiesce to Beijing. The area has recently seen an influx of higher-end stores catering to mainland tourists.
A policeman fired warning shots in the air, and 90 people, including officers and journalists, were hurt. After the unrest, city legislator Kwok Ka-ki said: “What is postulated in ‘Ten Years’ has become reality.”
The film’s other two shorts share an art house experimental vibe. One was shot entirely in black and white; the other has a reference to Descartes and a degree of inscrutability.
On opening day, in mid-December, movie critic Edmund Lee wrote in the South China Morning Post, the city’s leading English-language daily, “These young filmmakers have produced a deeply poignant political satire that will touch keen observers of the city’s changing political reality.”
The movie has sparked significant interest among locals. “This is a wake-up call,” said Bernie Tang, a 28-year-old Hong Konger who works in Beijing. He made a point of going to catch a screening as soon as he returned to Hong Kong for a weekend. “This film has given me much food for thought.”
The film has been screening for more than eight weeks and still sells out every night in some theaters. It even beat “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at some venues when both films were in cinemas in late December and early January.
Made on a $65,000 shoestring budget, “Ten Years” has grossed more than $550,000 at the box office as of late January, said Rance Pow of film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway. And it’s been selected to enter the Osaka Asian Film Festival in Japan next month.
The filmmakers have been astounded by the commercial success, calling it “a miracle,” especially when studio productions monopolize most of the theater chains.
Mainland authorities have taken notice. An editorial in the Global Times, a mainland China newspaper closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine, dismissed “Ten Years” as a “masochistic exercise” by opponents and called the filmmakers a gang of fear-mongers.
“The film showcases the recklessness of the directors, and it will only bring more harm than good to society, particularly at this juncture,” the editorial concluded.
Chow, in particular, has been inundated with queries from friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, asking if he’s afraid of blowback.
“After a while I got really fed up, so I started telling them this film is the self-immolating act of my career,” Chow said. “This might seem laughable, but this is also sad.”
Law is a special correspondent.