Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
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.