January 11th, 2016
In the past three weeks, one film has been at the tip of young people’s tongues in Hong Kong, and it ain’t Star Wars.
Produced by Ng Ka Leung, Ten Years is an omnibus film featuring five shorts centered around a single question: What will Hong Kong be like ten years from now? In one film, a taxi driver struggles to keep his living after Mandarin becomes the dominant language. Another film peels back a mystery surrounding the identity of a self-immolation protester outside the British consulate. Another about ta grocery store owner whose son has joined the red scarf-wearing youth brigade.
In case you can’t tell by now, the shorts clearly highlight a certain anxiety over Hong Kong’s political situation; anxiety over losing Hong Kong’s unique culture, anxiety over “mainlandization”, anxiety over the death of Hong Kong as we know it. It’s activist cinema filtered through the perspective of the Umbrella Movement generation.
Despite the misfortune of opening in one cinema on the same day as Star Wars, the intensely political film has been playing to sold-out shows for the past three weeks. It has since spread to five screens and made HK$2.2 million - astonishing for a release of such limited scale.
What sets Ten Years apart from the countless speeches and satiric videos we’ve seen from liberal (or Pan-Democrat) activists, politicians and artists? One word: Storytelling.
As effective as a great speech can be, didactic lectures appeal only to those who are already subscribing to what you’re selling. The same goes for satire - sure, it’s funny to people who know what’s being made fun, but it’s not going to win the hearts and minds of those who haven’t been won over.
What Ten Years takes advantage of is mankind’s most important tool. The art of storytelling is how we learn our history, our sense of morals, our beliefs. Our love for storytelling has exploded into art forms that can be bought and sold. Billions of dollars are made from storytelling in various formats, from books to films and even to music, because it is our most effective form of communicating ideas to one another. Remember how Han Solo won over the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi? C3PO’s storytelling skills.
By projecting the anxiety of liberal Hong Kong into these stories, the filmmakers make a strong, emotional case for what Hong Kongers should be worried about in the future - forced assimilation into China, loss of civil liberties, the ongoing re-colonization of Hong Kong. In other words, Ten Years may have what it takes to bring people over from the other side. The film shows a scary situation, and the film may just be what’s needed to wake people up.
Hong Kong cinema began as a commercial industry, and it has always been driven by commercial needs. There may have been a period of artistic innovation in the 80s, but young filmmakers now face an entire generation of gatekeepers with plenty of excuses to maintain status quo.
Hong Kong cinema has been limping for years, struggling - and failing - to find another critical success that would put it back in the global spotlight. Meanwhile, local audience drown in the waves of nostalgia, still clinging to films with stars of the past as the local entertainment industry fails to build up a new generation of talents worthy of take the torch.
That’s why Ten Years come as a breath of fresh air. It’s a socially and political relevant film that’s mostly well-made. It doesn’t cover itself with schmaltzy sentimentality. It holds up a binocular in front of Hong Kong and tells them this may be what they see on the other side. If the filmmakers can get enough people to look, Ten Years may one of the most important film Hong Kong has made in years.