This September marks the second anniversary of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, a series of protests in 2014 (some of the most violent in China since Tiananmen Square) led by students demanding universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong in response to more restrictive electoral procedures. While the movement itself has subsided, its ripple effect can be seen in the film Ten Years, which screened last night as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.
Ten Years is comprised of five short films that explore what the autonomous Chinese territory could look like in a decade given mainland China's influence. Think Black Mirror, but for Hong Kong.The film, made on a tight budget of HK $600,000 (just over $77,000 USD), is a huge success, outselling Star Wars at the first theater that screened the movie and earning "Best Film" at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The Chinese government isn't too thrilled.
The first film, Extra, is about a local low-level Triad member, hired by the mainland government to stage a false flag assassination in order to scare the population into submission. Season of the End is a more philosophical film which follows a man and a woman who catalog the archaeological remnants of Hong Kong and want to preserve a human specimen. Dialect tells the story of a taxi driver struggling to keep his job after Mandarin (spoken in mainland China) becomes the official language of Hong Kong (where mostly Cantonese is spoken).
Self-Immolator intertwines documentary and narrative aesthetics to tell the story of an unknown person who self immolates in front of the British Consulate after a protester dies in prison from a hunger strike (spoilers ahead!). Ten Years concludes with Local Egg, the story of a store owner struggling to maintain his shop and independence in midst of increasingly authoritarian government policies while his elementary school-aged son must partake in a government propaganda program.
While each film explores dark facets of the cultural and socio-political tug of war between Hong Kong and mainland China, all is not lost. “When there is injustice and inequality, someone has to speak up and it doesn’t have to be young people,” Kwun-Wai Chow, director of Self Immolator told me over the phone (through an interpreter). “We can’t keep saying that the future rests on the younger generations. Hope spans across ages and generations.”
I had the opportunity to talk to directors Zune Kwok, Fei-Pang Wong, Jevons Au, Kwun-Wai Chow, and Ka-Leung Ng, as well as producer Andrew Choi about how the dystopian concepts they explore are happening a little sooner than expected.
How did this whole movie come together? Where did you get the idea of exploring the future of Hong Kong?
Andrew Choi: Me and Ka-Leung, who is also the co-producer started this project two years ago. We finished a documentary film that we worked together on three years ago, so we were thinking of a new project and the idea of the future of Hong Kong came up because Hong Kong has had sudden changes over the past few years, politically economically. We set the time frame for 10 years because it’s a period of time that most people can imagine and experience.
It gives a real sense of urgency.
Andrew Choi: We initially we were thinking of doing a feature film, but [had a] limited budget. We found the first director Jevons and he suggested that we should do five independent stories that could be put together as a feature film, so we got five directors and we left them to choose their own topic have total freedom on what the story is about.
We want people to have discussions about the future of Hong Kong. We started before the Umbrella Movement, so [that] sort of impacted the story line and production…[and] the outcome of the view and the movie.
What has the reaction been so far in Hong Kong?
Andrew Choi: I think the response was overwhelming. It’s important to know that it’s also things happened in Hong Kong over the past few months including the Causeway Bay bookstore incident, the Mongkok conflict. The things that are happening in real life are [making] people pay more attention to our film. Even over the past three months, there have been a lot of changes and people are saying the film is actually talking about what’s happening today, not ten years [from now]. It’s generating a lot of discussion with people, with press, and we are overwhelmed by the response. When [they] talk about the future in Hong Kong, they kind of refer the film.
That is really cool to be the leading voice in such an important discussion on culture. I read that mainland Chinese authority have censored reports about the film. For you is that sort of an indication that you’re doing the right kind of work and that you’re striking the right kind of nerves?
Zune Kwok: I think it just reflects the nonsense of the Chinese government. I can’t say we’re doing the right thing because of that, but it just reflects their mentality. I wonder what they’re afraid of.
Kwun-wai Chow: We made what we want to believe. We don’t need the Chinese government to come in and tell us what’s right and what’s wrong or what we should make or what we should not make. We just want to write, and what kind of effect the film has on others is beyond our control.
Where did the inspiration for Extras come from? Is there a real fear in the Hong Kong population of false flag operations or the idea of staging these events simply to incite fear?
Zune Kwok: The idea of using fascination or an attempt to kill someone to incite fear among the people is definitely something people worry about because the Hong Kong government has passed several legislations to really use unreasonable and almost violent means of [responding] to the opinion or votes of the pan-democrats (pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong).
So the inspiration for the story came partially from the Umbrella Movement because I saw during that time, that a lot of people with no political association are performing political duties such as beating up the protestors—and being paid for it. So I [thought] what would happen in future societies if people encouraged this kind of action, where it’s okay to incite violence to achieve a goal and all the moral judgment is lost and it becomes very easily accepted.
Also we see how our own government tends to use fear to control our citizens and so the film might be a satire, but it’s also a reflection of our society and how certain decisions can be made can be made or certain goals can be achieved in outrageous ways.
So for the next movie, Season of the End, what is it about these characters that drives them to want to capture everything and save them as specimens? Does that say something specifically about Hong Kong culture, or is it more universal?
Fei-Pang Wong: I think both. [For] the hong kong perspective, the development of Hong Kong [as a city], is [happening] so fast. It’s like every year you walk in the same place, and it’s already changed and the items you are using this year are already changing. You [might not be able to] even recognize Hong Kong at all in maybe 5 years.
But for the universal perspective, I would also agree that these living habits of ourselves are still the same, everywhere. Even the people in other countries they have the same habits, and will change all the things so fast. So for our planet, our earth, is it capable to digest all the items all the things we’re making? So I think it’s happening in Hong Kong, but it’s happening in the other places, in other countries.
I also really like the concept that an idea only has power and meaning so long as the person who thinks it is alive. After they die, it ceases to exist.
Fei-Pang Wong: Thank you. In the story there was also talk about how to freeze our personality. For me it’s like if we so continue and think one day that people have the right ideas and want to save the planet, they need to [preserve] themselves or freeze themselves because there are no more people like that. It’s not only for Hong Kong. It’s also for other countries.
For Dialect, I read that there was actually a proposal to make Mandarin the official language of Hong Kong (where Chinese and English are the official languages, but Cantonese is the common language). Is there still that type of pressure or idea that Mandarin is more valuable, which could lead to the erasure of Cantonese?
Jevons Au: Definitely, there is a concern about the language. Before the handover 1997 Hong Kong was a British colony and many people considered English to be more important or superior than Cantonese. And then after the handover, the Chinese economy [became] better and more important like now, so now the people in Hong Kong tend to think Mandarin is quite important.
Cantonese is our mother tongue, but [in Hong Kong, people] always think it’s inferior or less important. Many Chinese people outside Hong Kong [who] speak Cantonese think that Cantonese is a language instead of [just] a dialect, but the people living here tend to think Mandarin is more important and more people think Cantonese is in a less important position right now.
Recently, I got back to the Hong Kong airport, and I wanted to find my baggage. I asked the staff there, and the first question they asked me was can I speak in Mandarin. I really felt like a foreigner in my home town. And that’s a real feeling in Hong Kong nowadays.
The last two films really explored the idea of multigenerational issues within activism. I know that the Umbrella Movement was very youth-oriented, but why was it important that the self immolator to be an old woman?
Kwun-Wai Chow: I chose an older person as a self immolator because Hong Kong is our home and it doesn’t belong just to the young, but to the old people. In addition to the young people, the older generation should be responsible for the well-being of where they live. So when there is injustice and inequality, someone has to speak up, and it doesn’t have to be young people. We can’t keep saying that the future rests on the younger generations—that to me is too superficial. Hope spans across ages and generations and this is what I’m trying to say by choosing an older person. But honestly, independent thinking is what I want to convey, and if that’s the core values of the Hong Kong people then those values encompass everybody, not just the younger people.
And in Local Egg, at the end the father explains how self-suppression and fear of the government leads to a more oppressive state, so what is the relationship between the generations in activism and in your film?
Ka-Leung Ng: To me, the story of Local Egg spans three generations. We have the egg seller, the store owner. We have the two young people: one of them decided to leave Hong Kong and emigrate to Taiwan to do the farming, and the other one became an underground book seller. And we also have the kid, the egg seller’s own kid, who is forced to become a government propaganda [Youth Guard] and to catch people who are using “local” terms.
So they all have their own individual choices to make and I respect that, but anything [oppressive] that happens [today] that we’re so used to, that’s actually bad for our society. That’s actually hurting the future.
Each of our decision making can affect the global environment for our kids, so we have to ask ourselves, what kind of future are we creating for our kids if we become used to certain things, certain ways of life and certain things that are happening in our society.