Ten Years 十年 (2015)

Hong Kong

Directors: Kwok Zune 郭臻; Wong Fei Pang 黃飛鵬; Jevons Au 歐文傑; Chow Kwun Wai 周冠威; Ng Ka Leung 伍嘉良

Language: Cantonese, Mandarin

Genre: Short / Drama

Running Time: 104 minutes

4/5. A raw, direct shot at the state of modern Hong Kong.

Five short stories examine how Hong Kong might look in the year 2025.

Extras 浮瓜—Two low-level gangsters are hired to carry out an assassination by shadowy officials intent on providing a pretext for passing Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

Season of the End 冬蟬—As the city around them is torn down, one man and one woman set about the task of painstaking preservation. Collecting samples of all things organic, the man decides that he must be preserved as well. Thus, they begin the slow process of preparing his body for taxidermy.

Dialect  方言—A taxi driver struggles to adapt as Hong Kong moves to a Mandarin-based society. Having failed a Mandarin proficiency exam, he is forced to drive with a sign in his taxi highlighting his inability to speak putonghua. Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling to communicate with his own son.

Self-Immolator 自焚者—Outside the British Consulate-General, a protester burns. Hong Kong society reels from the first arrest for sedition under the National Security Law, a young activist named Au-yeung Kin-fun (Ng Siu Hun 吳肇軒). Au-yeung dies from hunger strike, having pleaded ardently for the British Government to intervene at the UN to reclassify Hong Kong as a colonial territory with a right to self-determination. As more people take to the streets, the SAR government requests for help from the People’s Liberation Army.

Local Egg 本地蛋—A shop keeper discovers he will no longer be able to buy eggs from his local chicken farm, which is being forced to close as the farming industry moves entirely to the mainland. Back at his shop, he’s confronted by a group of “Youth Guards”, resembling the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. They tell him they’ll have to make a report because his “local” eggs are against regulations; the word “local” has been banned.

Many thousands of words have been written about Ten Years. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the definitive Hong Kong production of the last half decade, with its five shorts focused on life in 2025 Hong Kong (2015 + 10, for those struggling). Ten Years was watched by millions in Hong Kong, but never received a release in mainland China. For those yet to see it, that may serve as a hint for the kind of film Ten Years is.

Although Ten Years is not a feature length movie, the atmosphere throughout is one of consistent unease. As with many things in Hong Kong today, that unease often stems from politics. Indeed, with the notable exception of the  arthouse dystopia of Season of the End, every film is explicitly political. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the climate in Hong Kong and  specifically the feelings among the younger generation these five directors belong to.

The explicitly political nature of the collection is undoubtedly why it has drawn so much attention, but it is also a stick which has been used to beat it by Beijing and pro-establishment forces. Accusations of sensationalism and scaremongering were quick to emerge, and the film was pulled from its theatrical run in Hong Kong while still playing to packed audiences. In fairness, it is not impossible to understand this perspective. Anyone who has been to Hong Kong would say that use of the word “local” is not banned, taxi drivers still do not have good Mandarin, and the PLA has not been on the streets suppressing riots. Moreover, public discontent has been limited since the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

However, the failure to achieve concessions in 2014 does not mean the emotions that took so many to the streets that day have disappeared. Instead, Ten Years reveals the deep-seated concern that remains among millions of Hong Kongers.

Yes, Self-Immolator is so direct in its criticism of Hong Kong’s situation that it is almost an advocacy film for Hong Kong independence. But I would argue its biggest mistake is simply trying to do too much in its 25 minutes: flipping from documentary to voice over to flashback; it struggles to remain focused. That said, many will find it the most gripping of the five presentations precisely because of its clear and unambiguous message.

In general though, Ten Years is wonderfully curated, with each film pacing itself just right for the total run time and hitting the right emotional notes to follow on from its predecessor.  Often, the most mundane moments are when Ten Years truly hits its mark. The taxi driver who struggles to learn new names for roads he knows like the back of his hand; the farmer forced to move to make a living.

The quality of Ten Years is all the more remarkable given its shoestring budget (HK$6 million) and the relative inexperience of those involved (although there are numerous exceptions, watch out for long-time Jia Zhangke collaborator and Chinese independent film legend Wang Hongwei 王宏偉). Ultimately, this proves little impediment to the quality of cinema, and Ten Years deservedly walked away with the title of Best Film at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards (although others were less happy with the decision)

In addition to its success on screen, the impact of Ten Years must be considered in context. Whilst films like Ten Years will continue to be restricted in mainland China for the considerable future, it sets a model for the form local cinema in Hong Kong is likely to take. Of course, Hong Kong’s movie industry is still dominated by big budget co-productions with mainland studios. There is certainly a place for these films and many of Hong Kong’s best filmmakers work within this system. But truly localised tales such as those in Ten Years have shown that there is money to be made in telling stories the big studios won’t touch. Moreover, moviegoers are willing to forgo a big budget blockbuster for a film that tells their own story.

The question is, will anyone be willing to take that risk? Money does talk, yet the money available in Hong Kong is nothing compared to mainland China; many of the directors who worked on Ten Years have struggled to find work since its release. Instead, Ten Years has expanded out. There are currently versions using the same premise in production in Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand. The Taiwan version is of particular interest given the many cultural links and shared fears between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Of course, time will tell if the dystopian future in Ten Years ever comes to pass. Hong Kong is far from becoming a basket case, and still enjoys many freedoms that are (literally) the envy of mainland Chinese. Still, three years nearer to 2025, it seems likely that at least one thing will be true by next year. The national security law has once again been discussed following the 19th National Congress. A lot can change in 10 years.

Soul Mate 七月與安生 (2016)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Derek Tsang 曾國祥

Language: Mandarin

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 110 minutes

3/5.  A poorly conceived ending cannot ruin the heart of this tale of love and friendship.

Ever since they met at school, Li Ansheng 李安生 (Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨) and Lin Qiyue 林七月 (Ma Sichun 馬思純) have been best friends. Despite going to different high schools and having very different family lives, nothing has been able to break their bond. Then Qiyue tells Ansheng about the boy she likes, the handsome lacrosse captain Su Jiaming 蘇家明 (Li Chengbin 李程彬). Although Qiyue gets her man, both Ansheng and Jiaming seem drawn together. After almost sharing a kiss after a day out, Ansheng realises that it’s time for her and Qiyue to part. As she travels with her rock-star boyfriend, she continues to exchange letters with Qiyue. At the end of each she writes “Give my regards to Jiaming”…

Soul Mate is one of the latest in a growing number of films worldwide adapted from so-called web fiction (often called “internet literature” in the Chinese context), which includes among its number Fifty Shades of Grey.

Such literature is increasingly influential and widely read. This is particularly true in China, where the stigma attached to the genre is less pronounced than in many Western countries, and reading from a smartphone is commonplace. Soul Mate is adapted from the short story “Qiyue and Ansheng 七月與安生” (also the Chinese name of the movie) written by Annie Baby 安妮寶貝 (this is, unsurprisingly, a pen name!).

As with many examples of web fiction, “Qiyue and Ansheng” is available for free online, which of course is one of the reasons for its popularity.

For this who would like to read it, it’s available here. It is relatively easy reading for non-native speakers such as myself and certainly worth the read.

Director Derek Tsang does a fair job of translating the source material to the big screen. However, unlike a standard book-to-screen adaptation, in which the inevitable question is what to leave out, the writers of Soul Mate have had to work to fill in the gaps of its source material.  This brings its own challenges. Much of the strength of a short story lies in its focused nature; enough to evoke a feeling, a memory, but without the need to construct a world and all of its consistencies. Moreover, stand-alone short stories tend to rely heavily on a reader’s own imagination and interpretation, an element which is inevitably stripped away on film.

Soul Mate succeeds in the most critical elements of translating from page to screen—its atmosphere and emotion—but falls down with some of the bolder changes. Specifically, the entire ending is radically changed in a manner which  changes the perspective of the characters. Ansheng and Qiyue have their fates essentially reversed, but as their characters otherwise develop in line with the original story, the intention of the author seems to have been hastily discarded. Worse still, the closing half hour is a mess. This includes a particularly poor twist consisting of a false flashback in which Qiyue abandons her child to walk around the world “living free”. Whilst the idea that she wanted to live “free” like Ansheng was clear, the actual execution was so ridiculous given her character that it was no surprise when it was revealed as a lie.

Thankfully for viewers, the first three-quarters of Soul Mate are much more effective than its last. The love triangle is thoroughly convincing  in its understated, mostly unseen nature. But Soul Mate is truly driven by the performances of its two leading ladies, who achieved the unheard of feat of jointly winning Best Actress at the 2016 Golden Horse Awards. Such is fitting for a story that is ultimately about two friends Qiyue and Ansheng.

It is unfortunate that Soul Mate cannot maintain its momentum throughout, but as a whole it is still well worth the time spent.