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When the indie political drama Ten Years won best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards this year, presenter and chairman of the awards board of directors Derek Yee raised some eyebrows when he quoted U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Yee could very well have been referring to the Hong Kong film industry, which increasingly finds itself in the precarious position of attempting to preserve its cultural identity within the economic behemoth that is China. Jumping into the fray is Ten Years, an unabashedly political film in which five different directors imagine what Hong Kong’s future will look like after a further decade of Chinese rule.
So strong and direct is Ten Years’ politics that the film’s triumph at the Hong Kong Film Awards was not seen in China. The telecast, which had for years been broadcast on the mainland, was mysteriously blacked out, leading many to wonder if Ten Years’ mere nomination was the cause of an unofficial ban.
Even stranger perhaps was the reaction at home to the film’s award. Several high-profile studio execs at major Hong Kong film outlets quickly denounced the decision to honor the film. Media Asia head Peter Lam, for instance, called Ten Years’ win “politics hijacking professionalism.”
But Yee, a staunch supporter of the local film industry, echoed a popular refrain these days in Hong Kong when he told a local news outlet that the controversy surrounding Ten Years was further proof that the relationship between Hong Kong and China, at least in terms of their respective film industries, could best be described as “one country [with] two systems at work.”
Within the Hong Kong film sector, there lately has been a sense that the independent spirit that gave the world such distinct, influential filmmakers as Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui and John Woo slowly is withering in the shadow of China. But then Ten Years happened. Made on a shoestring budget of $75,000 supplied by a nonprofit organization (that now has cut ties with the film ), the film grossed 10 times its budget during the 58 days it was shown in theaters, becoming a phenomenon in Hong Kong. Seven thousand people gathered in the streets to watch an April 1 community screening. The film clearly struck a nerve and has helped spark a burgeoning indie film movement that is pushing back against the pressures of China.
“I entered the film industry proper because I wanted to see the way things work, and I found that in terms of resources, and technically, the industry is very professional,” says Jevons Au, 34, director of a segment in the film called “Dialect,” in which he examines how Mandarin is slowly overtaking the traditional Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong. “But independent films offered much more creative freedom.” Ten Years’ other segments include “Extras,” directed by Kwok Zune; “Season of the End,” directed by Wong Fei-pang; “Self-Immolator,” directed by Chow Kwun-wai; and “Local Egg,” directed by Ng Ka-leung.
Veteran producer and member of the Hong Kong Film Development Council John Chong (Infernal Affairs), 57, goes so far as to declare that young filmmakers like Au are leading to the emergence of a fresh “Hong Kong New Wave Cinema,” one comparable to the generation in the 1970s that made socially conscious films with a distinct local flavor. “The cost of making studio films has risen so much, we can’t make a film at a studio for $1 million,” says Chong. “But the young filmmakers are making films for $75,000, for a quarter of a million. It has completely transformed the ecology of the Hong Kong film industry.”
Young directors like Au are not alone. Veterans within the local industry are offering plenty of mentorship — and even cash — to help emerging directors make the kind of dark, uncompromising material that would never receive the backing of the local studios, all of which have ties to China. Trivisa, an edgy crime thriller helmed by new young directors Au, Frank Hui and Vicky Wong, was produced and nurtured by Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To. Robbery, another stark take on the social tension in Hong Kong and directed by screenwriter turned director Fire Lee, was produced by veteran screenwriter-director Chan Hing-ka and prominent talent manager Paco Wong.
“Established filmmakers saw that the Hong Kong film industry needs new blood, and the new directors welcome their assistance enthusiastically,” says Chong. “You can see their passion in their films. I see that as a hope for Hong Kong cinema. And their films are socially inclined. New directors tend to make films about what is happening around them, whatever touches them, resonates with them and makes them want to speak out.”
But these socially conscious films by new filmmakers very likely won’t be screened in China, and the directors of Ten Years know that they are sacrificing the opportunity to work — and get paid — in the world’s fastest growing film market. Au, for one, is undeterred: “Metaphorically speaking, I just want to open a street food stall. I don’t want to earn any Michelin stars. The local flavors can only be created by local filmmakers. I can survive.”
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