HONG KONG PROTESTS

May 17, 2016 – 5:09 am

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Bleak but hopeful… that seems to be the message behind Ten Years (2015), an anthology of five segments whose Best Film award at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards not only brought it fame but controversy as well. Stephen Tan reviews.

For $ingaporeans old enough to remember (that is, those old enough to remember anything from 1979), the most resonant segment in Ten Years (2015), Best Film at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards 2016, is Jevons Au’s Dialect. What filmmaker Au feared might happen in Hong Kong in 2025 already happened in $ingapore from the late ’70s.

In 1979, $ingapore initiated the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which, over the years saw less $ingaporeans speaking dialects and more people speaking Mandarin so much so that in some cases, if a Chinese person goes to a salesperson or a hawker stall owner and not speak Mandarin, that person will get a dirty look - instances of such a situation ironically have increased with many Mainland Chinese now working in $ingapore. At that time and until today, TV showed only Mandarin-dubbed Cantonese dramas and shows from Hong Kong; and cinemas stopped showing movies in Cantonese. Even movie theme songs, shown either at the beginning or end of the films, were dubbed into Mandarin.

Made in 2015, Ten Years is an anthology of five unrelated segments, each trying to depict what life would be like in Hong Kong in 2025. Filmmaker Ng Ka-leung told the South China Morning Post in late December 2015: “I had the idea for Ten Years early last year. I had been feeling dejected for years about the lack of future for Hong Kong. The national education controversy showed that the next generation are at risk of ideological indoctrination. Political, education and housing problems have festered for years and all protest movements have turned out to be futile in the end. I wanted to make a film to flesh out possible future scenarios so people might be goaded into thinking more about the future path Hong Kong should take.”

The opening segment, Extras, directed by Kwok Zune, though broadly satirical, is also kind of over-the-top. Two bottom-level gangsters are tasked with shooting rival politicians, a ploy aimed to establish the National Security Law (think Homeland Security). Unknown to the two gangsters, the whole plot is hatched by some Mainland Chinese Black Ops department and involves Hong Kong legislators, Councillors and the triads. The broadly comic aspects don’t really sell the segment to non-conspiracy buffs though the discussions between the two gangsters - be it trying to figure out who should actually be the shooter to talking about life as a triad member - sound real enough.

The next segment, Season Of The End, directed by Wong Fei-Pang, is - as LoveHK Film calls it, “a tough sit”. Set in a dystopian future that looks as bleak as its practically monochrome palatte, the story is about Wong Ching and Lau Ho-Chi systematically collecting and cataloging “specimens” until the latter decides he’d like to be a “specimen” himself. Though Tarkovskian [circa Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979)] in its approach regarding nostalgia and, more importantly, the harvesting and keeping alive of memories, viewers are likely to get mired down in the segment’s labyrinth of time. Thankfully, the segment isn’t long enough to make you want to walk out.

Jevons Au’s Dialect is effective in imbuing the viewer with a sense of dread and helplessness, especially those who cannot cope with mastering a second language. Instead of “immigrants” to Hong Kong learning Cantonese - a staple theme in many Hong Kong films and TV dramas, the situation is reversed in Dialect where Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers have to master Mandarin (aka Putonghua) in order to get by. And for taxi driver Leung Kin-ping, the less Mandarin the speaks, he more he is edged out of making a living. A good gag is the GPS in Leung’s taxi which only works with properly-eunuciated Mandarin!

If Dialect is a sombre sign of things to come, Chow Kwun-Wai’s Self-immolator shows the process of how (dire) things came to be. Seen from the distance, Hong Kong is covered in mists and clouds - so thick that it gives the impression that the place is shrouded in secrets; and where truth and justice are constantly being obfuscated. During an anti-China protest, activist Auyeung was beaten up and arrested. He later dies after staging a hunger strike in prison. Following his death, a person sets himself or herself on fire outside the British Consulate. In the first place, Auyeung was jailed for calling for the United Kingdom to re-involve itself in Hong Kong-China affairs; and for an independent Hong Kong.

Part of Chow’s segment looks at Auyeung and what he believed. The activist said: “It’s not about whether it’s possible. It’s about whether it’s right or wrong.” Without being able to identify the self-immolater, the other aspect of this episode focuses on how people and the authorities look at the case - from it being part of a conspiracy to the work of an insane person. Shot in a documentary style, Self-immolator is especially poignant when it finally reveals who the person is who set fire to herself and why she did it and, through it all, the reference to 2014’s Umbrella Movement (a series of sit-in street protests for electoral reform) can hardly be missed.

The Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times has called Ten Years absurd and ridiculous, and accused the filmmakers of trying to spread anxiety. It referred to the film’s political message as a “virus of the mind.” When Ten Years was nominated for Best Picture in the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards, the state-owned China Central Television announced that it would not telecast the ceremony live, as it had done every year since 1991. Derek Yee, chairman of Hong Kong Film Awards, who presented the award to the directors, said that it had been hard to find anyone else to present the award, due to fears of being blacklisted for mainland opportunities.

Meanwhile, Peter Lam, chairman of Media Asia and of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, said: “The fact that the film got the prize is a tragedy for Hong Kong’s movie industry [because] politics has kidnapped the profession and politicised film-awarding events.” Some members of the Chamber of Films said that they would submit a proposal to the Hong Kong Film Awards Association to change the voting mechanism of the awards. Daniel Lam, Chamber of Films member and owner of Universe Films, whose film Little Big Master lost out to Ten Years, said that current voting mechanism “can be easily manipulated to produce an irrational result.”

To end the movie with Ng Ka-leung’s Local Egg might seem a little wistful on the surface. The Hong Kong portrayed in Local Egg is no different from any society where Big Brother is constantly watching you. Sam visits the last chicken farm in Hong Kong and, back at his sundry shop, he is reprimanded, not by some arms-wielding Party functionary but by primary-school-going Youth Guards, for selling “local” eggs. Instead of “local”, the term “indigenous” might better serve its purpose. The notion of “local” or indigenous eggs is to denote a sense of belonging and of locality - they are “Hong Kong eggs” as opposed to eggs from the Mainland or even Thailand.

While Sam feels that “local” eggs also carry with them a sense of homegrown pride, for the Chinese Mainland authorities, such localness is divisive and anti-China. More insidious in the segment is the growing presence of the Youth Guards who go about mouthing slogans, reporting infringements and even taking action into their own little hands by throwing eggs at a bookshop deemed to be selling questionable materials. [For a more biting and less polemical version of such tales, check out Chen Ruoxi’s The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Indiana University Press).]

Looking at the kids with their armbands and uniforms, one can’t help imagining the day when Sam’s own son will denouce his father (though the segment takes pains to show that won’t be happening any time soon). But it’s the thought that is frightening… as much as Ten Years, the movie, is expected to instill a sense of hope.

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