Film Review: Ten Years is controversial
For as long as I have known, the instability of Hong Kong’s political system has been plagued with uncertainty over its cultural identity and how exactly Cantonese people are to identify themselves. Personally, although I identify as predominately Australian having grown up in Sydney all of my life, nearly all of my family members live in Hong Kong and Tens Years hits a little close to home.
Ten Years, composed of five short films directed by Jevons Au, Ng Ka-Leung, Chow Kwun-Wai, Wong Fei-Pang, and Kwok Zune, seems to me completely speculative and rightfully dubbed as controversial, looking back at Hong Kong’s history as a predictor of the future of Hong Kong in 2025 seemingly echoing current fears of its people. In all films presented in Ten Years there is an uncertainty surrounding politics, education, language, culture and job security which runs throughout all shorts as a sort of case study in the attitudes of Hong Kong people today.
There is obvious bias from my part, but it seems to me that the most dominant attitude is the fear of Hong Kong people as to their cultural identity being threatened by both the British, having governed Hong Kong till its transfer of sovereignty back to the Chinese in 1997 after 156 years of British Colonial rule, as well as an ongoing distrust of China’s communist system over Hong Kong, which seems to identify more with a capitalist and westernised system of autonomy.
Directed by Kwok Zune, Extras is a dramatic black and white piece which seems to echo the instability of Hong Kong politics most recently through the context of an ongoing election campaign presented in the story, suggesting that nothing is as clear cut or black as white. A staged political stunt involving guns and people of power or influence is an overly cliched and dramatic start to Ten Years.
‘We need to created mass panic’ utters a character in Extras, and rightfully so the film’s characters strategise the most effective method of setting up a newsworthy tragedy to evoke panic amongst the citizens. Extras is a short which scripts terrorism at its finest, successfully evoking political panic and succeeding in sparking awareness through news publishing. Although fictional, it seems quite easy to see the possibility of this happening in ten years time.
News publishing platforms along with personal blogs, social media and the ever-growing niche of citizen journalism provides people with a sort of political platform to broadcast messages and influence. There needs to be both an awareness and a well thought out response in how each of us respond to such loaded information about what is published. News is no doubt a powerful institution and journalism sometimes blurs the line between fact and influencing fact or events. It’s this distinction and awareness of which everyone needs to be aware of before reacting to a powerful and emotively resonant occurrence.
This is shown through the use of corrupt police dealings, a nod to Hong Kong’s secret organised crime syndicate, and the consideration of whether it will be more influential to assassinate a male or female politician for greater political impact.
Beyond the use of guns in politics presented in Extras as its the main theme or focus, the film also contains cultural references to Hong Hong’s history such as the provision of food donations of rice a predominately asian staple given by a politician, which acts as both a metaphor for Hong Kong’s dependence on their government and current political system as well as a nod to the governmental handout of food staples during the war.
A predominately Hong Kong cultural activity performed onstage in front of the politicians in Extras is dance, both serving as a celebration of Hong Kong’s identity as well as presenting audiences with two differing perspectives held by the influence of two systems. On stage are the elderly who hold a more traditional worldview presented in the form of a Chinese fan dance set to traditional Chinese music and the youth who perform Hip Hop complete with B-boy and B girl gear as a cultural nod to the influence of the West on changing attitudes of Hong Kong culture particularly on its youth.
Whenever I visit relatives in Hong Kong, I tend to notice these differences in culture between older and younger generations living there. My grandmother thoroughly enjoys performing fan dances, tai chi and singing Chinese opera for me in her cramped shoebox apartment whilst my second cousins enjoy hip hop, basketball, and shopping. Even in small aspects such as dance there are noticeable differences between generations.
Hong Kong’s mistrust or tension with Mainland China is echoed in Extras with characters fearful of the new government taking over the security of their jobs and welfare. In a conversation between the two key characters, they speak of having to turn to crime in desperation of the security of their livelihood and youth is portrayed as a opportunistic and having the ability to evoke change.
As a sign of mourning portrayed in Extras is a scene in which protesters dressed in white throw paper money at government officials. Perhaps they are mourning the uncertainty of Hong Kong politics as well as the lives cost both literally in relation to finances and lives cost over the decades due to conflict.
In Extras, the tossing of a coin as to determine the fate of whether politicians are shot is symbolic of the uncertainty of the political system in which alternates as the coin rotates between two possibilities whilst in air. On both sides of the dollar coin are representations of two differing systems, one written in English and the other in Chinese concentrated upon a circular piece of metal with an inscription dating the coin to the year of 1997 when Hong Kong was given back to China after British rule.
Season of the End
Directed by Wong Fei-Pang, Season of the End speaks about the decline of a destroyed humanity in which archaeologists aim to preserve objects from homes destroyed by bulldozers. It’s a dramatic metaphor for the destruction and downfall of Hong Kong’s culture as a way of being as well as their own sense of security literally as characters are shown sorting out the rubble of a fallen house. The two characters, male and female grow to develop disagreements and tension ensues leading to violent arguments and outbursts as a representation of the cultural clash between British and Chinese rule. Through the use of voiceover, Wong Ching who plays the female in this short, speaks about speaks about having a dream the previous night to Lau Ho-Chi. A dream serves as both a nostalgic recollection of times past as well as a wish or a hope towards future possibilities.
Season of the End felt overly dramatic with a focus on preserving the past as a sort of categorised and scientifically studied nod to academia in particular science, progression and evolution. The questions as to why death is preserved? Why is the past preserved? are considered aspects as to the significance of the preservation of Hong Kong’s identity as it meets its inevitable decline. The futuristic speculation this film provides includes man being categorised, sorted and preserved as to give himself worth embalmed towards a sort of stateless existence, a suspended animation of being.
Directed by Jevons Au, Dialect alludes to the language barriers which form tension between Mandarin and Chinese speakers just as English and Chinese had created a shaft between the two differing cultures in Hong Kong’s past. Presented in the form of a story involving a Hong Kong taxi driver who has difficulty speaking to his clients due to his inability to learn the Mandarin (Putonghua) language, Au presents us with situations in which many characters are in a state of confusion and their livelihoods are at state as a result.
Language barriers in Dialect are presented in a hilarious manner as the taxi driver attempts proper pronunciation of particular words in Mandarin (Putonghua) but the serious consequences of this include an inability to operate a GPS, communicate with clients, and order food at a restaurant.
Dialect presents to us something in which points out that language is not and should not be taken lightly, and the flaws of the system in particular in relation to changing social systems, education and governance lead to a decline in communication between at its most basic level, father and son.
In a country where Hong Kong students learn three different languages, Cantonese, Mandarin and English, it seems as if the country itself is divided by three systems of communication leading to a confused state of being. Like so many Hong Kong People in this predictive and speculative film, the taxi driver becomes a foreigner in his own country, alienated by language. This echoes the sentiment of many Hong Kong people who are concerned about Mainlanders, or the Chinese, taking over and imposing their ideals upon Hong Kong culture dominating both in language, ways of being, job security, hence their livelihoods.
Directed by Chow Kwun-Wai Self-Immolator makes obvious reference to Hong Kong’s political protests which have happened as recently as the umbrella movement in 2014. Powered by the influence of youth, the cast of Self-immolator are mainly young, impressionable Hong Kong people who support Hong Kong’s independence from China through requesting support from the British Consulate-General.
From the period of 1984 in which Hong Kong served two masters, Britain and China, in the form of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong’s identity and independence has been questioned and this point appears throughout the film. Presented in the form of mockumentary, or the fictionalised documentary, it is easy for audiences to mistake fact for fiction in this speculative short. Characters address the camera directly through interviews and newspaper journalists reference real world incidents which actually happened making it hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Mentioned in Self-Immolator is the UN’s article 23 which references human rights in particular the right to work. It again reinforces the question presented by the short films seen so far, do Hong Kong people have a right to work and who is Hong Kong owned by? The Chinese, The British, or the Hong Kong people themselves?
There is reference to the obvious prejudice carried towards a few Hong Kong residents such as Karen, a character played by an current Hong Kong television actress who is of Pakistani decent. Her appearance in the film challenges social norms in regards to Hong Kong’s traditionally east asian appearance of stars. Racism is prevalent even in a country that contains two opposing systems of governance and supposedly in an environment which should evoke tolerance in amongst its people. The violent confrontation between protestors and police as well as the racist attitudes between a shop keeper and Karen suggests that this current system is failing.
A flier advocating for Hong Kong’s independence features in Self-Immolator as an influential piece of paper containing colours synonymous with the British flag’s colours of red, white, blue. The flier also echoes Hong Kong’s famous red-white-blue bags which originated in the 60s as an identifiably cultural piece belonging to Hong Kong and its people. Used in market stalls as well as for the purpose of hand carry luggage by people travelling between Mainland China and Hong Kong, the bag’s light, firmness and durability has become a motif of Hong Kong’s resilience in and amongst change. The desire to revert back to British rule is perhaps a sign of rebellion against the current system.
It seems so sensationalised, outlandish and over the top that there is a lack of believability to the story. The desire for Britain to support Hong Kong’s independence is a call which echoes the umbrella protests of 2014 in addition to the closing shot which features the burning of an umbrella as reference to the event.
A candlelit vigil held for those who have self-immolated for the supposedly noble cause is projected by the film’s story along with the entirety of the Ten Years shorts which speak of Hong Kong’s desire for independence. It’s such a violent clash of opposing systems, communism and capitalism that it makes me question whether communism as portrayed in Ten Years is a system built on violence or hatred or simply there are two systems at play. A disagreement offered by an alternative opinion or way of approaching things should not mean that the opposing party is the enemy. Just as Kwok Zune’s Extras portrays a simplified black and white version of events, the reality is that in Hong Kong politics nothing is clear cut and there are definitely many indistinguishable grey areas.
Self immolation which involves the burning of oneself for a noble cause or as one character puts it, ‘not a noble sacrifice but a symbol of hope seen by many’, makes me question the validity of protests and whether this film’s portrayal of its cause is too extreme and over the top. Youth protesters in Self-Immolator appear both active for their cause highly impressionable and possibly idiots in some sense of the word.
Directed by Ng Ka-Leung, Local Egg is the story of a shop owner who sells eggs and his son who grow apart due to the separation of governing systems which enforce laws within the Hong Kong environment. It’s an overwhelming look at how legalism overwhelms the everyday Hong Kong man, affects his business, his family, friends and his relationship with his son.
The opening sequence of this film in which there are baby chickens trapped in confined metal cages echoes the feeling Hong Kong people have towards their government, seemingly trapped in a system with little room to move. Just like the caged houses of which which a few Hong Kong people of poor economic status reside, the opening sequence of Local Egg serves as a metaphor for the people’s idea of being in a caged in by their system.
In a more generalised interpretation of Local Egg, legalism is enforced by children who act as ‘Youth Guards’ carrying out acts which affect primary industry. The banning of the distribution of eggs as a food item and restrictions on terminology is a simple attack on Hong Kong’s wellbeing even at a primary, agricultural level. Dressed like the communist party the kids of the Youth Guard appear as if slaves to the system, on mass enforcing laws and carrying out orders legalistically and without thought. It appears as if old values are enforced on modern day youth and the main character, the egg seller, asks us to consider whether the new generation of Hong Kong people are stupid and don’t think for themselves. (It’s obvious that this quip is directed at Hong Kong people in order to evoke a response)
In a more lighthearted portrayal of Hong Kong identity and culture, the egg seller’s son is shown to be reading a Doraemon or ‘Ding Dong’ comic, a Japanese character iconically popular with Hong Kong residents. So popular in fact that every time I visit Hong Kong, a 2 metre sculpture of Doraemon is guaranteed to greet me at the local shopping centre. For context Doraemon is a blue robotic cat who has a magical pouch filled full of wonder and surprises. Think Doctor Who‘s Tardis or perhaps Skippy the Bush Kangaroo‘s pouch for those who identify with one or the other. It’s comfortable, hidden and carries cultural significance in all aspects of the television icon.
Ten Years seeks to evoke a response especially in all who watch the film, especially Hong Kong residents who are asked to take action in the form of a hashtag which appears at the end of the film. With many festival goers removed from Hong Kong’s political situation, it is hard to tell whether the film’s core message actually translates to audiences outside of Hong Kong and whether the message of Ten Years will actually last beyond its borders.
Ten plays again on the 18th June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. For more about SFF and to buy tickets, head to their website: http://www.sff.org.au/
Review by Addy Fong.