Is Ten Years the Occupy Central movement of Hong Kong cinema?

Vivienne Chow says the brouhaha over the Best Film award for the independent production signals a revolt in local cinema that reflects the political mood

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2016, 4:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 April, 2016, 8:46am

Art is never for art’s sake. The curious case of Ten Years is the latest episode of the long-running reality drama that passes for Hong Kong society today. While the film itself is a political statement, the saga surrounding the Best Film award it received at the Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday night simply parallels the political climate in the city.

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Nearly 20 years after the British handed the sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China, many citizens have become increasingly worried about their future as Beijing’s influence grows. Questions of whether our freedoms and the rule of law – the cornerstones of the city’s success – are still intact make news headlines every day. The use of traditional Chinese characters and Cantonese language are said to be under threat as Putonghua and simplified characters are introduced in schools and mainstream television. Small shops have been forced out and replaced by pharmacies and retail chains selling gold and cosmetics to mainland tourists.

Hong Kong cinema, a cultural heritage that put the city on the world map and made the city proud, has a fate that mirrors that of its city.

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The Closer Economic Partnership Agreement between the city and the mainland might have opened up opportunities for local filmmakers and investors in a market of 1.3 billion. But at the same time, it has dragged audiences away from Hong Kong cinema. To get into the mainland market, Hong Kong filmmakers have to play by mainland rules under the co-production agreements. They have to surrender their creative freedom in order to get the nod from mainland censors and win cash from mainland investors. Half of the cast have to be mainland faces.

A decade later, the city suddenly realised that its cinema heritage is in danger of extinction: people have been distancing themselves from these so-called Hong Kong films, as seen in the poor box office performances of co-productions. The city is running out of talent before and behind the camera – the average age of the stars competing for this year’s Best Actor award was around 50 or above.

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Hongkongers fear losing their cultural heritage and identity. These sentiments soon turned into political action. The city has in recent years seen large-scale protests that drew tens of thousands. There was the protest against the introduction of national education in schools in 2012, outside the government headquarters in Admiralty. A year later in the same spot, the public rallied against the Executive Council’s decision to reject Hong Kong Television Network’s free-to-air licence application. In Sheung Shui, a series of protests against parallel traders has been staged since 2012.

Tensions came to a head in 2014 with the 79-day Occupy Central protests, with demonstrators demanding universal suffrage for the chief executive election without Beijing’s screening. Most recently in Mong Kok, violent clashes broke out between protesters and the police on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Similarly, a revolt has been brewing in Hong Kong cinema, with filmmakers starting to make movies that speak to a local audience, instead of aiming at the more lucrative mainland market. Pang Ho-cheung’s comedy Vulgaria (2012) and Fruit Chan’s sci-fi horror film The Midnight After (2014), the latter of which is considered to be a political allegory, are prime examples. And they received support from the Hong Kong public, too – Vulgaria was the second top grossing local film in 2012, and The Midnight After totalled more than HK$21 million in the box office, the fifth top grossing film in 2014.

But just like the series of protests prior to the Occupy movement, these films alone were not enough to make a difference.

On Ten Years, the film industry should let bygones be bygones

In this regard, the independent film Ten Years, which depicts a bleak future of Hong Kong in 2025 under the influence of communist China, is like the Occupy Central of Hong Kong cinema. Sunday night’s Best Film accolade from the Hong Kong Film Awards has an effect similar to the Lunar New Year protest in Mong Kok – long-suppressed discontent and resentment are finally laid bare for all to see.

The idea that a work’s artistic merit is tied to how much it cost to make it is laughable

The award was determined via two rounds of secret ballots cast by industry professionals. It is a democratic system that has proved to be effective, ever since the award show was established 35 years ago. Its outcome will never please everyone, but it must be respected.

The controversy over the award for Ten Years lies in whether the film was awarded for its artistic merit or its political statement. The award was certainly a political statement – a vote of protest against not only the current situation of Hong Kong, but also the hegemony of a film industry that has been dominated by mainland co-productions. Critics say such collaborations typically favour mainland talent and capital, while sidelining local talent. At the same time, the film was also recognised for its artistic merit, for it clearly resonated with the people of Hong Kong and made an impact.

Those who protested against the movie’s win were mostly movie moguls – such as MediaAsia’s Peter Lam Kin-ngok, also chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board – who have vast business interests on the mainland. They are also among those who benefited the most from the co-productions over the past decade. Critics claimed Ten Years, which was made on a budget of HK$500,000, did not meet the award’s artistic criteria, and threatened to boycott the awards if its voting system was not changed.

The idea that a creative work’s artistic merit is tied to how much it cost to make it is laughable and doesn’t need to be taken seriously. But not so the demand for change, which will compromise the probity of the awards. Such a move must not be allowed to proceed.

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If the Occupy movement can be said to have nurtured the seeds of localism in politics, it’s only natural that the same is happening in cinema. In recent month, we’ve seen the release of the political comedy Mobfathers, the crime thriller Trivisa and the documentary The Taste of Youth, all of which speak to a local audience and are expected to take centre stage at next year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. The film industry must defend the integrity of the awards – the way Hongkongers should defend the freedoms and rule of law of this city.

Vivienne Chow is a journalist and critic based in Hong Kong