'Ten Years' Director Talks Hong Kong Indie's Runaway Success, Government Backlash (Q&A)

Ten Years 2 - H 2016
Hong Kong International Film Festival

The young helmer discusses capturing the political zeitgeist in Hong Kong with the controversial omnibus film: "Many people in Hong Kong love their city and are interested and concerned with its future."

The parable of David and Goliath tends to be overused and misapplied these days, but in the case of the small independent Hong Kong film Ten Years and its critics in the Chinese government, the analogy is most fitting.

Made for less than $80,000 with a cast and crew of volunteers, enthusiastic amateurs and film school students, Ten Years is a collection of five short films that present a Hong Kong of the future, asking “what if” questions on a number of local issues. A segment called Extras deals with the harassment faced by pro-democratic protestors; Season of the End touches on the loss of identity wrought by the bulldozers of development; Dialect deals with the creeping dominance of Mandarin over Cantonese; Self-Immolator considers whether hard core believers in Hong Kong independence would adopt the extreme act of self-immolation for their cause; and Local Egg tackles censorship.

The five directors, Ng Ka-leung, Jevons Au, Chow Kwun-Wai, Fei-Pang Wong and Kwok Zune, never expected the film to make it to theaters and Ten Years quietly made its debut at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in November last year. From there, through rapid word-of-mouth, the film began to sell out its limited screenings, moving to bigger theaters due to demand and eventually going on to gross 10 times its budget.

One of the film’s directors Jevons Au, who directed the segment Dialect, spoke to THR about why Ten Years needed to be made and why it has struck a chord with the local population.

How did Ten Years come to be made?

From the very beginning, we just wanted to make a film together. We are five guys coming from different universities, but we all wanted to know what the future of Hong Kong will be for our generation. We are of a similar age, but it’s five different points of view, so there’s more perspective to see how Hong Kong will be. We had a very limited budget, so we wanted to make an independent film about Hong Kong issues. For commercial projects, we don’t have a chance to discuss these kinds of topics. We wanted to make a film we wanted to make. We really didn’t expect proper screenings at all.

How do you feel about the positive reaction to the film in Hong Kong?

It was a total surprise to us. We went to the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and we had a single cinema, then more and more cinemas joined in. Then we went to overseas film festivals. We never planned any of that. We didn’t expect this kind of reaction. Ten Years’ success made me feel that many people in Hong Kong love their city and are interested and concerned with its future. The five issues in the five shorts films are things people are concerned about. I think that’s why it was such a huge success.

Ten Years was a rare local Cantonese film made for a local Hong Kong audience — why aren’t there more films like that?

There are more and more Hong Kong-China co-productions due to the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) policy. It seems like a benefit to the Hong Kong film industry as there’s investment, and we can make films for a larger audience, the big China market. But this kind of system induces behavior to make “Chinese” productions and so local film is declining and suffering. I think it all stems from that CEPA policy.

Despite glowing local reviews, the Chinese press savaged Ten Years, and the government banned the live telecast of the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards since the film was up for best film. What are your thoughts on the Chinese response to the film?

I haven’t really considered that as that’s politics. We had four script writers work on Ten Years and one of them was from Mainland China. She gave us so many ideas as she had experienced a lot of the issues in the film but [in] her province in China. She comes from Wuhan where they have their own dialect and the government has forced them to speak Mandarin, marginalizing their language.

Speaking of language, that’s the topic of your segment in Ten Years, called Dialect. Could you explain the inspiration behind it and what you were trying to achieve?

For Ten Years the other four directors working on it looked at it in a way of "what will happen in 10 years," whereas I looked back at the last 10 years in Hong Kong and what has changed and touched me specifically. So for me, language, both written and spoken, has changed hugely. Mandarin and simplified Chinese text have become more important in Hong Kong. I’m a scriptwriter, that is my job. At the beginning, I wrote in Cantonese but as there’s more and more Hong Kong-China co-productions, we have to write in Mandarin and that’s not my mother tongue. It may seem similar but it is totally different, and I don’t have the same confidence to articulate my feelings or ideas, and that was a big impact on me as it’s my career.

Also, education is changing rapidly. As kids we used to learn Cantonese, then Mandarin, and now it's Mandarin a lot earlier. I have a friend whose kid is in primary school and he can’t speak to his son, as the mother won’t allow the boy to speak Cantonese as learning Mandarin is so important. That’s what I’m afraid of: How will we talk to the next generation?