Courting controversy

A political movie scoops top Hong Kong award, but not everyone’s happy

Director Kiwi Chow, executive producer Andrew Choi and fellow directors Jevons Au and Ng Ka-leung of Hong Kong movie "Ten Years" pose in Hong Kong

The directors and producers behind the much talked about film

Last year The Golden Era dominated the Hong Kong Film Awards, the territory’s equivalent of the Oscars. The movie, which tells the story of a group of young writers in 1930s China, scooped five awards, including best film and best director. But the landslide win prompted some critics to moan that the golden era of Hong Kong’s own film business was truly over, as the winning film was essentially a Mandarin-language film co-produced by mainland and Hong Kong studios.

“It is true that local producers [now] find it hard to survive without considering the preference of mainland audiences,” the Hong Kong Economic Journal agreed.

This year, as if to prove that film production still has an independent voice in Hong Kong, the jury surprised everyone by giving the top award to Ten Years, a low-budget production that depicts a dystopian future for Hong Kong.

The subject matter is contentious, to say the least. The Hong Kong of 2026 – the year the film is set – is a place where books are censored, houses are bulldozed against residents’ wishes and the Chinese government interferes directly in local politics. As a result, Ten Years is being portrayed as a politically partisan protest against Beijing’s growing influence over Hong Kong.

With a tiny budget of just HK$500,000 ($64,000), the political satire was released at the end of last year on selected screens in the city, earning more than $640,000, or 10 times what it cost. That suggests that only about 50,000 people out of a population of over 7 million saw it at the box office. But after the surprising win at the award ceremony, thousands more gathered at community-organised screenings to watch it for free.

The film has struck a chord locally, predominantly with young people who have grown nervous about Hong Kong losing its freedoms. Earlier this year, the alleged abduction of five local residents by the Chinese authorities caused further alarm (see WiC311), with many saying that Beijing has no intention to honour the “one country, two systems” promise. “As a portrayal of our worst fears, [Ten Years] is arguably the quintessential political horror film of our time. It perfectly plays (or should it be “preys”?) on many Hongkongers’ primal fears,” wrote political analyst Alice Wu in the South China Morning Post – referring to the concerns that Hong Kong could become indistinguishable from other cities in China.

Needless to say, Ten Years hasn’t gone down well with the Chinese government – which has been particularly sensitive to Hong Kong’s mood since the Occupy Central movement in 2014 (see issues 244 and 256). Even prior to the award show, major Chinese broadcasters had boycotted the ceremony, while news portals like Sina and Tencent and state news agency Xinhua made no mention of the win whatsoever.

Global Times, a state-run newspaper, did mention the movie, describing it as a “virus of the mind”.

Ta Kung Pao, a pro-China newspaper in Hong Kong, said the film was associated with the same forces that organised the Occupy Central event. “Now that the pro-democracy camp has infiltrated the entertainment industry for their political publicity, their agenda is to challenge China’s national sovereignty,” it warned (to summarise: the fissure in Hong Kong is between those who believe the territory’s next leader – the Chief Executive – should be elected from a group of unvetted candidates, versus those who say Beijing has the right to nominate those eligible to stand. A minority in the former camp have gone further and proposed that Hong Kong vote on self-determination – a possibility that is not covered by the city’s Basic Law – hence the Ta Kung Pao reference to sovereignty issues).

Plenty of people in the film industry have cold-shouldered Ten Years. When its win was announced at the ceremony many of the filmmakers present “ignored the rules of etiquette by refusing to applaud,” noticed Ming Pao Daily. Daniel Lam, head of Universal International, demanded a review of what he described as the “irrational” voting system and said that his own studio might not participate at future events unless the arrangements are changed. Hong Kong media tycoon Peter Lam, the chairman of production company Media Asia, also lamented that “politics has kidnapped the profession and politicised film awards”, while Motion Picture Industry Association chair Crucindo Hung called the film’s victory a “big joke” and accused the jury of “using the awards as a political tool”.

As the comments suggest, many of Hong Kong’s film bosses prefer to stay on good terms with Beijing. After all, Hong Kong is a tiny film market compared to the mainland, and it has become virtually impossible for local studios to finance their own productions without the backing of Chinese investors.

Politics aside, what constitutes a ‘best film’ is always going to be a little contentious.

“So how do you define who deserves to win and who doesn’t? Everyone has his or her own set of standards. You say Ten Years is not good enough but I say Cold War [awarded best film in 2013] is utter rubbish… At the end of the day, when you decide to participate in the Awards, you will have to follow the rules,” says a Ming Pao film critic.

The controversy did not go unnoticed amongst China’s resourceful netizens. In fact, many have said that they are now more curious to find out what the film is about after the government’s crackdown on mentioning it.

“The more you want to censor something, the more we want to get it,” one film fan wrote on weibo.

To that end, many mainland Chinese then tried to download Ten Years from the popular platform But those that thought they had found the title were led down a confusing path, soon discovering that they were downloading a 2011 Hollywood high-school reunion flick called 10 Years, which starred heartthrob Channing Tatum.

Unsurprisingly this nonplussed many of the viewers, who were expecting to watch something much more subversive. “What? Ten Years is actually an American romantic comedy?” one confused netizen asked.

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