Fear and loathing at the cinema: new films reflect modern tensions in Hong Kong

Mainstream filmmakers latch on to the prevailing anxiety about Hong Kong's future in a series of movies with a defiantly local appeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 7:04am

Hong Kong is no longer the same city. That is the thought troubling the 16 minibus passengers and driver who find themselves stranded in a deserted strip of Tai Po after passing through the Lion Rock Tunnel in a scene from the new movie, The Midnight After. They realise that they are the sole survivors of some terrible catastrophe that has afflicted the city.

"While we were going through the tunnel, our city has vanished," screams one passenger played by Kara Hui Ying-hung. "Society's laws, human ethics - they no longer apply."

Director Fruit Chan's post-apocalyptic thriller is the talk of Hong Kong. The film has raked in more than HK$14 million at the box office since it opened on April 10. Based on a hit online novel, Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo, by a writer who calls himself Pizza, the film adaptation was highly anticipated. The plot - fuelled by local politics and social issues such as anxiety over cross-border relations - has connected with audiences. The passengers' misfortune holds a mirror up to that of ordinary Hongkongers.

"Passengers on the red minibus are trapped. And we are trapped in reality," says the award-winning director Chan. "Many good things about Hong Kong are fading away."

The Midnight After is riding the crest of a wave of recent mainstream Hong Kong movies that reflect the tension surrounding the 17th anniversary of the handover to China and uncertainty about long-promised voting rights. The films deliberately accentuate their "Hongkongness", often making use of colloquialisms, amid growing mainland influence on the city and rising cross-border antagonism.

Some of the films are Hong Kong-mainland co-productions partly funded by a mainland financier.

Opening this month, Enthralled, the directorial debut of columnist Chip Tsao, touches on sensitive events such as the annual June 4 protests over the Tiananmen crackdown. Raunchy comedy 3-D Naked Ambition stars politically vocal comedian Chapman To Man-chat as a lowly writer of soft-porn stories for a newspaper in Hong Kong who ventures into the Japanese adult video industry. It features enough nudity to ensure it would not make it to mainland cinema screens, and makes much of the "Hong Kong spirit" of hard work and determination.

May and June will see two joint Hong Kong-mainland productions telling localist stories. Pang Ho-cheung's Aberdeen opens in May after premiering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March. While Aberdeen has been marketed as a family drama, Pang says the film portrays the pressures facing Hongkongers. In one scene, a young girl asks her uncle what the meaning of life is. The uncle instructs her: "Breathe in, hold your breath, and breathe out."

The film's Chinese title in Hong Kong reads Hong Kong Boy or Little Hong Kong. On the mainland, the film has a different title that literally translates as Living World, Little Reunion.

It will be followed by crime thriller Overheard 3 in June. The third instalment of the series directed by Felix Chong Man-keung, it centres on a property conspiracy involving the rights of indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories to build houses.

The movies are a warning to society, says Pierre Lam, critic and lecturer at Baptist University's College of International Education. The latest wave of cinematic localism shows criticism of the city's status quo has gone mainstream. "The city has reached a critical point," Lam says. "People are worried that the Hong Kong identity, the way the city functions and its core values will one day be forgotten."

This is not the first time that parochialism and politics have spilled over into mainstream Hong Kong cinema, Lam says.

When the city was agonising over its future before the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Ann Hui On-wah's Boat People reflected people's anxiety through a story of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the horrors of communism.

Chan, who made the highly political "1997" trilogy - Made in Hong Kong (1996), The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (1999) - says Hong Kong residents were traditionally apathetic about politics. In the 1980s, a handover to China in 1997 seemed a remote prospect. But after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, native Hongkongers were scared and some who could afford it fled, Chan says.

People are culturally battling against mainland suppression
Kacey Wong, artist

In the 1990s, satirical comedies offered a catharsis for people's fears and uncertainties about the 1997 transition, says Lam. Alfred Cheung Kin-ting's Her Fatal Ways (1990) made light of this fear of the unknown through the story of a local policeman's clashes with a patriotic mainland policewoman visiting to solve a crime. The so-called expiry date of Hong Kong - July 1, 1997 - was a recurring theme in many films of the time, including Wong Kar-wai's acclaimed Chungking Express (1994).

This latest wave of politically conscious cinema began in 2012, says Lam. "Coincidentally, it was the year when Leung Chun-ying won the chief executive election."

In a scene from Chan's contribution to the 2013 portmanteau horror Tales from the Dark 1, a triad boss with a name pronounced Leung Chun-ying - but written in different Chinese characters - seeks help to eradicate his enemy by going to Tin Lok Lane and paying a woman to smack down his bad luck with her slippers under the Wan Chai overpass. For the character of a middle-aged loser who repeatedly tries to lead the group in The Midnight After, the director says he drew inspiration from Leung.

Movies with a strong Hong Kong flavour did best at the local box office in 2012. Cold War, which took in HK$42.8 million, was a crime thriller about Hong Kong's security forces. The foul-mouthed comedy Vulgaria, starring Chapman To as a failed filmmaker, charts some of the intense Hong Kong-mainland conflicts; it made HK$30 million. Hong Kong stories with liberal doses of course Cantonese slang had suddenly became box-office gold.

For Lam, Hong Kong people feel helpless about cross-border conflicts, political reform and universal suffrage, believing the decisions lie in Beijing's hands.

"People are pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong. And there's nothing they can do about it," Lam says. "Audiences want to see Hong Kong films. People love Cantonese swearing because it releases tension and reinforces their Hong Kong identity."

Artist Kacey Wong Kwok-choi, an assistant professor of design at Polytechnic University, says anxiety over the city's future has been a recurring theme in locally produced art. When those tensions seep into mainstream culture such as films, it is because the anger has become too obvious to ignore, he says.

"People are culturally battling against mainland suppression," Wong says. "In the past only a small artistic crowd felt that, but now it is the feeling of the masses. People feel that they have to safeguard their city's system and culture."

Mainland media have picked up on this intense Hongkongness. An essay by a writer giving the name Yi Dongying, published on April 15 on the website criticised Hong Kong films for favouring a local identity over a wider Chinese one. "Why does a small place like Hong Kong have its own core values?" the writer asked. The essay was widely shared - and disparaged - by Hong Kong readers.

Fruit Chan says Hong Kong people have moved from colonial era apathy to concern and even action. In the 1997 trilogy, the characters were marginalised. In The Midnight After, deserted Hong Kong is the character that has been sidelined by mainland influence.

Local politics also stars in the independent documentary Lessons in Dissent by British filmmaker Matthew Torne, currently being screened at Metroplex Cinema in Kowloon Bay. By following two teenage activists, the movie critiques Beijing's mounting control over the city and the widespread belief that Leung's administration's has acquiesced to that control. In 2012, Joshua Wong Chi-fung of student-led group Scholarism led the fight against a proposed national education curriculum that praised the Communist Party. Ma Jai, a member of the League of Social Democrats, became radicalised through his opposition to then president Hu Jintao.

Torne, an Oxford graduate who examined Hong Kong's politics and identity for his graduation thesis, says he wanted to understand what it means to be a Hongkonger. He says Wong and Ma represent a new generation who have cast off the refugee mentality of their parents and grandparents, who treated Hong Kong as a stepping stone to somewhere else.

"This is their town, and this is what gives them an identity," Torne says of the two teenagers. "They fight. They stand up and protect their city."

The benefit of social unrest, notes Torne, is better art. More Hong Kong films, he says, are made for locals.

Whether the current wave of political mainstream cinema will drive audiences to take to the streets is debated. Tanya Chan, Civic Party vice-chairwoman and convenor of a group supporting the non-violent civil disobedience movement Occupy Central, believes the recent films might boost creativity in the city, but doubts they will have a direct impact on the public's political choices. "You need to have a sense of identity and to care about your city in order to stay creative," she says.

Meanwhile, Fruit Chan pledges to continue with his Hong Kong-centric storytelling. "We must treasure the identity and freedom we have now," he says. "I don't want to leave Hong Kong."