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Film Review: ‘Ten Years’

This controversial Hong Kong omnibus provoked China with its presentation five dystopian visions of the city's future a decade hence.

Political assassination. Self-immolation. Cultural annihilation. Children working as secret police. These are just some of the horrors five young helmers envisage for Hong Kong a decade down the line in “Ten Years,” a dystopian omnibus film that provoked the Chinese government’s ire. In the service of each worst-case scenario, the various shorts employ arresting visuals, edgy film language and absorbing storylines to express some citizens’ uncertainty about viability of “One Country, Two Systems” in the former British colony. Bristling with an “if not now, when?” thirst for change, this epic historical document of the city’s political zeitgeist should explode at festivals and online platforms like a Molotov cocktail.

Made on a shoestring budget of around $65,000, the 2025-set anthology has earned an impressive $790,000 despite securing scant domestic screening slots. China’s state paper the Global Times branded it “thought virus,” and the government allegedly ordered a media blackout when it was nominated for — and won — best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA). When handing out the award, helmer-thesp and HKFA Chairman Derek Yee quoted Franklin Roosevelt: “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Ironically, the project resonated with local audiences precisely because it articulates Hongkongers’ deep-seated fears. Greater than their fear of oppression is that of assimilation (with mainland value systems and modus operandi). Death, in the form of assassination, suicide or martyrdom, is a recurrent theme, prompting naysayers to pillory the pic for its pessimism. But by posing rhetorical questions, “Too late? Not too late?” in the closing shot, the filmmakers clearly wish to raise consciousness and inspire hope.

Kwok Zune’s “Extras” evokes Costa-Gavras’ conspiratorial political allegories, as Pete (Peter Chan), an Indian, and gangster Hairy (Zerisawa Courtney Wu) are paid to shoot two local party leaders to stoke panic and push through a National Security Law. Set in a school holding jingoistic May Day celebrations, the segment is paced like a noir thriller and shot in pristine black-and-white with haunting chiaroscuro effects. In a scene that cleverly evokes Orwellian Doublespeak, scribes Leung Pui-pui and Fean Chung expose the connivance between mainland apparatchiks, local government bootlickers, police and triads.

Kwok’s previous shorts centered on ethnic minorities — a Filipina nanny and Pakistani delivery man (also played by Chan), were sympathetic without condescension. Here, he again rises above political satire to raise awareness of racial profiling as well as labor exploitation — as a mainland immigrant, Hairy found “best job security with the triads” but bemoans his “freelancer” status.

The cryptic “Season of the End” chronicles the last days of a pair of curators (Wong Ching, Lau Ho-chi), who try to classify and preserve vestiges of Hong Kong culture. As familiar objects around them become obsolete, they mournfully turn themselves into “specimens.” Awash with abject, desaturated colors that evoke rust, moss and decomposing soil, Wang Fei-pang’s morbid theme of human taxidermy and languorous tracking shots of ghostly corridors in crumbling buildings are visually mesmerizing. However, the elegiac mood is somehow dispelled by Wong’s jumbled dialogue and her grating manner of mumbling through her lines. (The Chinese title, “Winter Cicada” refers to the insect which “can’t speak of snow” because it only lives till summer, perhaps an allusion to the city’s transience.)

The omnibus’ least overtly political entry, Jevons Au’s “Dialect” nonetheless boasts the strongest local flavor through it’s heartfelt lament for the demise of Cantonese, the territory’s lingua franca. A cabbie (Leung Kin-ping) who couldn’t pass the Putonghua (China’s official language) proficiency test is barred from airport and downtown areas. How idioms and verbal nuances define one’s identity is made poignantly clear when the cabbie and his son (KK Si) cross wires talking about Beckham, using soccer terminology in Cantonese and Putonghua respectively. The language gap that breeds cultural chasms between generations should strike a chord with immigrant families anywhere.

“Self-Immolator” is a mockumentary that seeks to uncover the identity of a woman who set herself on fire in front of the British Embassy, right after a student activist fighting for independence dies from a hunger strike in prison. Alluding to the role of teenage pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong during the Umbrella Revolution, Kiwi Chow Kwun-wai presents a cogent overview of partisan groups and their diverse agendas. Despite its blunt rhetoric and choppy editing, the film locates the flashpoint of unrest among the young generation, culminating in a moving image of human dignity. Kudos also to Chow for foregrounding Hong Kong’s ethnic diversity by casting Indian Tanzela Qoser in the central role, who champions the indigenous cause in flawless Cantonese.

Ng Ka-leung’s “Local Egg” depicts the bizarre scenario of children dressed in Maoist Red Guard uniforms, carrying iPads in place of Little Red Books, patrolling mom-and-pop stores for banned merchandise. Grocery store owner Sam (Liu Kai-chi, “That Demon Within”) gets busted for billing his eggs as “local.” To his further dismay, his son Ming has joined the Youth Guards in vandalizing a bookshop. However, in a droll twist, the boy proves more fervent about Doraemon than party doctrine.

A carefully chosen symbol, the short’s egg motif pays homage to Haruki Murakami’s manifesto about the egg that breaks against the high wall — a metaphor for the individual’s clash with the system. By depicting the brainwashing of children, Ng recalls a historic protest in 2012 against proposed implementation of “moral and national education” in schools. The attack on a bookstore also uncannily presages last October’s mysterious “disappearance” of five publishers who sold gossipy books on the Chinese ruling class. Acknowledging that censorship only drives desires and resistance underground, Sam’s last words, “Don’t get used to it,” serve as the entire project’s sobering motto.

Visuals are stylistically coherent to their individual subjects, while tech credits are competent under such a stringent budget.

Extras (Original title: “Fau Gua”)
Directed, edited by Kwok Zune. Screenplay, Leung Pui-pui, Fean Chung. Camera (B&W, HD, widescreen) Mike Mak; music, Chun Hor; production designer, Vincent Cheung; costume designer, Chan Hup-yi.
With: Zerisawa Courtney Wu, Peter Chan, Hui Pui-do, Wang Hong-wei, Chan Wai-sin, Tsang Man-wai, Leung Fu-hung

Season of the End (Original title: “Dong Sim”)
Directed, edited by Wong Fei-pang. Screenplay, Wong Ching, Wong. Camera (HD, widescreen) Lau Tsz-kin; music, Daisuke Kashiwa; production designer, Ma Wing-yu; Ma Wing-yu.
With: Wong Ching Lau Ho-chi.

Dialect (Original title: “Fong Yin”)
Produced by Jevons Au.
Directed by Jevons Au. Screenplay, Au, Ho Fung-lun, Chung Chui-yi, Lulu Yang. Camera (color, widescreen), Mike Mak; editor, Samuel Chan; music, Herman Yip; production designer, Ho Fung-lun.
With: Leung Kin-ping, KK Si, Gloria Lai, Joost Hardesmeets, Kwan Wai-lun, Andrew Choi.

Self-Immolator (Original title: “Jee fun jeh”)
Produced by Frankie Chan, Mandrew Kwan.
Directed, written by Kiwi Chow Kwun-wai. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ho Chiu-yuen; editors, Gigi Li, Chow; production designer, G. Tsu.
With: Tanzela Qoser, Law Tsin-wong, Ng Siu-hin, Wong Man-chak, Liu Chui-chun

Local Egg (Original title: “Boon deh dan”)
Produced by Andrew Choi. Executive producer, Charlie Choi.
Directed, written, edited by Ng Ka-leung. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Twinsen Ng; producer designer/costume designer, Charlie Choi.
With: Liu Kai-chi, Hui Yuk-ming, Wong Hing-nam, Wai Bing-ting, Lai Chung-hin.

 

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Film Review: 'Ten Years'

Reviewed at Osaka Asian Film Festival, March 10, 2016. (In Hong Kong, Udine Far East Film Festival). Running time: 104 MIN. (Original title: "Sup Neen")

Production: (Hong Kong) A Ten Years Studio production. (International sales: Golden Scene Co.) (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

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