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.

29+1 (2017)

Hong Kong

Director: Kearen Pang 彭秀慧

Studio: China 3D Digital Entertainment 中國3D 數碼娛樂

Language: Cantonese 粵語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 111 minutes


Thirty is a milestone the world over, but in the hyper-competitive world of Hong Kong it carries added pressure. To have a career; to have a relationship; to get married. But Christy has everything on track. She’s got a job as an assistant for a famous fashion designer. She’s got a long-term relationship. And she’s even got an apartment she likes, minus a little mould here and there. But things that take years to build can fall apart in moments.

First, her landlord tells her he’s selling her apartment, and she has less than 2 weeks to move out. Second, her relationship begins to fall apart. Third, her dementia-suffering father falls critically ill.

Faced with these crises, Christy moves into an apartment to home sit whilst the owner is away. Among the owners many Polaroid photos and her pet turtles, Christy finds the owner’s diary. It turns out she, like Christy, is soon to turn 30. But their lives seem to be very far apart.

Wong Tin-Lok does not have Christy’s high-flying career; she works in a small record shop. She’s not fashionable, and she doesn’t have a long-term boyfriend.

What she does have is joy, and a love for life. So when Christy discovers the reason she’s not there, it makes her reconsider everything in her own life…

There’s a very famous saying in Chinese: 三十而立 (a man should stand on his own feet at 30). Like many famous Chinese sayings, it originates from Confucius. It’s a sentiment which many could relate to, but for anyone who has ever lived in a society with Confucian roots, it holds particular weight.

In Confucius’ time, women’s role in society was certainly different to today. Yet, for women across East Asia, to not be married by 30 is still often considered highly undesirable. Consequently, turning 30 can be especially stressful.

Director Kearen Pang’s 29+1 is a warm and genuine insight into the emotions that many women feel as they approach their third decade. Although 29+1 is Pang’s first movie, she is a veteran of Hong Kong’s theatre scene; in fact, 29+1 is an adaptation of Pang’s own one-woman show. As such, it’s clearly subject matter that she has had ample time to reflect upon and consider for adaptation.

And it’s a largely successful adaptation.

The story quickly evolves beyond the seemingly formulaic ‘career woman in the city’, and there is a mystery to the gradual revelations in Wong’s diary that keeps the pace moving along through the middle of the film.

The casting is excellent, no doubt because Pang had such a concrete image of who these characters are, having played them herself for many years. Chrissy Chau 周秀娜 as Christy and Joyce Cheng 鄭欣宜 as Wong Tin-Lok come from very different backgrounds. Chau rose to fame as a model, whereas Cheng has famously battled with her weight throughout her career. In 29+1, their characters are equally different different in appearance and initial impression, but through Wong’s diary slowly grow to know one another.

Where Pang’s direction and 29+1 occasionally stumble is when the adaptation tries to be too theatrical. We have not seen the stage show, but there are clips from the stage show in the credits which show numerous scenes from the film were direct translations. One of the most notable of these is where the ‘set’ opens up to reveal Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Although 29+1 has numerous surrealist elements, this transition feels jarring, occurring as it does near the film’s conclusion.

Nonetheless, 29+1 is a refreshing and understated addition to last year’s releases in a world where Hong Kong cinema is dominated by blockbuster co-productions and established megastars.

The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (2017)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  劉偉強

Studio: China Film Group 中國電影集團, Bona Film Group 保利博納, August First 八一 et al.

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: War/History

Running Time: 133 minutes

Not Recommended.

Shanghai, 1926. The First United Front between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) comes to a crushing end. With the aid of Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 orders many of the leaders of the CPC to be killed or arrested, solidifying his position as China’s most powerful leader, and weakening rival factions within the KMT.

However, Chiang’s purge did not include all of the CPC’s leaders, and has angered many within his own party.

Inspired by the words of a little known representative from Hunan, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, several recent KMT defectors and CPC veterans unite under the charismatic leadership of Shanghai survivor Zhou Enlai 周恩來 and veteran Zhu De 朱德 to stage an uprising in Nanchang.

But the the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek are not going to let them go without a fight….

We were not eager to watch The Founding of an Army. The couple of friends who had watched it in Chinese cinemas had given less than stellar reviews; something that is backed up by critic reviews you will find online. And, they were right. This is a bad movie. However, it does make for an interesting discussion piece on Chinese cinema, and particularly state-led projects.

The third and final part of the trilogy of The Founding of films (alongside 2009’s The Founding of a Republic and 2011’s The Founding of a Party), this year’s effort brings a conclusion to this cinematic celebration of the foundations of modern China: the state, the party and, finally, the army.

This reviewer was living in China for the release of the first instalment, and can recall it creating a fair amount of buzz (and not just in government-led media). It had an all-star cast, a literal who’s who of Chinese cinema, even if stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi only had the briefest of cameos. The film itself was forgettable and unsurprisingly hardly an accurate retelling of events; however, it spoke to the wealth of talent available when the best from throughout the Chinese-speaking world came together.

Fast forward two instalments and it’s fair to say the hype has died down. The Founding of an Army is bereft of the star power the first two instalments had, instead mixing a few old faces with a number of up-and-coming idols.  While I can understand the logic behind such a decision, trying to lure in the younger crowd who make up the majority of cinema goers, it’s fair to say it did not have the desired effect.

Audience reaction to the film was so bad, that comments on China’s main film website (think IMDB), Douban, were shut down. That’s for those who actually went to see the film, which, despite only competing with other domestic films performed abysmally at the box office, losing out to the patriotic action of Wolf Warrior 2. It even had official complaints made against it by relatives of the revolutionary heroes it aims to depict, who took umbrage at the use of pretty boy idols and total disregard of facts.

To be fair to The Founding of an Army, it’s hardly unusual for cinema to do away with facts in the name of a good story. Unfortunately it never really seems to find one.

We here at The Chinese Cinema Blog obviously have a great interest in China’s history, it’s politics etc. But even for us, the whirlwind of characters that are introduced is disorientating. From Zhou Enlai, to Mao, to Chiang, to He Long, back to Zhou, to Zhu De, this film jumps around constantly and without mercy, but in doing so it takes many compelling stories and makes each one utterly limp. This leaves little room for actors or director to work with, resulting in cut and paste stereotypes of everyone involved. Even the action scenes, presumably the strength of a war film, suffer from a lack of focus.

As such, we cannot recommend this film to anyone who wants to be entertained, or to watch a good piece of cinema.

All is not lost, however. If you are interested in how the CPC wants to project its own history, and in turn, China’s history, The Founding of an Army is an interesting study. The events upon which it is based were mostly a series of ever worsening defeats for the party’s fledgling armed forces, but watching this film gives you an idea of how such events have been transformed into a victory in the national narrative. So, despite its seeming lack of cinematic value, there still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

Our Time Will Come 明月幾時有 (2017)

Hong Kong / China

Director: Ann Hui 許鞍華

Studio: Bona Film Group 保利博納電影發行, Distribution Workshop 發行工作室, Class Limited 卡士

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日文

Genre: Drama / History

Running Time: 130 minutes

Recommended. A moving female-led tale of resistance in 1940s Hong Kong. Whilst it doesn’t push any boundaries, it has plenty of moments, just don’t expect another Lust, Caution — this is a very different kind of film.

In 1940s Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, Fang Lan 方蘭 (played by Chinese star Zhou Xun 周迅) lives with her mother and their tenants, struggling to live amongst food shortages and harassment from Japanese forces and spies. She ends things with her boyfriend Li Jinrong 李錦榮 (Wallace Huo 霍建華) — seeing no point in marrying under such conditions.

She is suddenly sucked into an escape plan for her mother’s tenant, the famous writer Mao Dun 矛盾,who is evacuated across the border into China by a team of communist resistance fighters led by the famous “Blackie” Lau  劉黑仔 (Eddie Peng 彭于晏).

Having helped the resistance once, she is offered further work helping the band, first through spreading propaganda leaflets, before ultimately becoming the leader of the group’s city unit.

Fang’s mother worries over her daughter’s work with the resistance, but she determines the best way she can help is to try to take on some of the burden herself, doing more and more of the groups tasks. One day, she helps a young woman to smuggle important documents by sewing them inside of her clothes. However, the pair are discovered when two guards search their clothing for money.

Meanwhile Fang’s old flame Li has been working undercover at the Japanese army headquarters as a Chinese teacher — frequently smuggling out stolen bits of information — and immediately informs Fang of her mother’s plight. She in turn asks for Lau’s assistance, but it soon becomes clear that any attempt to free her mother would be too dangerous for the group.

Director Ann Hui is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong cinema’s treasures, with a string of classic films dating back over 30 years. She has done a number of historical dramas, and this film follows 2014s The Golden Era 黃金時代 in adapting some of modern China’s historical figures and events for the big screen. Whilst The Golden Era focused on several of China’s most famous twentieth century writers, Our Time Will Come takes on the familiar subject matter of the Sino-Japanese war (although there is a nod to China’s literary past in the shape of Mao Dun and Zou Taofen).

As China has ramped up its patriotic education, it is has become common to see a new TV drama or movie about the war with Japan. As such, despite the worthiness of the subject, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu.

Luckily, Hui is far too skilled of a director to let this one fall flat. The film is anchored by star Zhou Xun — incidentally, always our favourite of the Four Dan — and supported, as always in these sorts of films, by some of Chinese cinema’s best.

The film is tension filled and its ending tear inducing, but it has its fair share of lighthearted moments. These mostly come in the form of Eddie Peng’s “Blackie” Lau, who is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of lovable rogue who happens to be very good at killing. James Bond with a heart of gold, perhaps. We are not familiar with the real life Lau’s story, but it’s fair to say this may not be a nuanced interpretation. It does, however, work well with Hui’s decision to intersperse the film with scenes from modern Hong Kong, as survivors from that time recall their heroes. In this sense, it is entirely understandable that the audience is getting a lionised version of history.

Our Time Will Come is in many ways what big budget productions in Hong Kong look like today — almost invariably co-produced with one or more mainland studios, with a cast from across the Chinese diaspora and a story that links them together. Thus we get the link between Hong Kong and communist resistance fighters, Chinese artists, and in the final shot a flourishing modern Hong Kong.

All of this does sit somewhat incongruously with the current malaise which seems to sit over the city and its future 20 years after its return to the PRC*. Yet it would be harsh to judge the film too strongly on those points, when it still delivers a worthy and original story on one of the unexplored arenas of the World War 2. It reminds the audience of the small acts of resistance that can ultimately become part of a greater whole, and how those acts can resonate long into the future.

* A fact that was noted by several audience members during the Q&A session after the film. This, unsurprisingly, got short thrift from the director.

You can watch the trailer below: