The Hong Kong film industry is best known for martial arts and crime thrillers, and for launching the careers of international stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat. But the most celebrated Hong Kong movie of the past year is not of the same mold. It's a low-budget, overtly political independent film presenting a dark vision of Hong Kong's future.
When Ten Years debuted in December 2015, Hong Kong cinemas sold out moments after publicizing showtimes. People crowded into informal public screenings. Crowdfunding campaigns later brought the film to Canada, Germany, the U.K. and Australia. It premiered in the U.S. at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 4 and will soon be available on demand.
But it has been banned in China, where a state media editorial in January — since taken down — condemned it as "absurd" and a "thought virus."
In the film, made for about $64,000, five directors imagine five different vignettes of what Hong Kong will be like in 2025.
It's a dispiriting vision: Local children are indoctrinated to spy on adults in scenes reminiscent of China's Cultural Revolution. A pro-democracy activist burns herself in front of the British Consulate to protest the U.K. handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Chinese government officials stage a murder to help usher in harsh national security laws.
Ten Years won Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April — though the honor was never mentioned on the mainland, where a broadcast of the awards ceremony was cut off. The film has earned more than 10 times its budget at the Hong Kong box office. It's popular because it shows the hopes and fears of Hong Kong citizens living under Chinese rule, and because, in some ways, real life has caught up with the plot.
Ng Ka-leung, one of the film's directors, says the team started the project in 2014 and settled on one guiding question: If nothing changes in Hong Kong, what will the city be like in 10 years?
But, says executive producer Andrew Choi, "A lot of people are saying, 'You don't have to wait 10 years, it's already happening now.'"
Attempts by Hong Kong to assert itself in recent years have met with official crackdowns. Police used tear gas against pro-democracy Umbrella Movement demonstrators in late 2014. A violent clash between police and protesters erupted after officials tried to shut down a traditional nighttime food market during Lunar New Year celebrations in February. And this spring, several Hong Kong booksellers, who all offered works critical of mainland political figures, mysteriously vanished.
In the film's vignette directed by Ng, a Hong Kong grocer's son joins the Youth Guard at school. It's a clear parallel to the militant Red Guards who terrorized "class enemies" during China's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The commanders order the boy and his classmates to report people for selling products labeled as local — including the eggs at his father's shop.
In Hong Kong today, the word "local" has become politically charged since a "localist" political movement began fighting the growing influence of mainland China and advocating a "Hong Kong-first" approach. For instance, they protest against mainlanders who buy up goods in Hong Kong for resale in China but avoid import duties. The Chinese government has branded localists as separatists, and some do indeed advocate Hong Kong's independence from China.
Ng wrote his script in mid-2014, the same year his son was born. He says he thought about politics in Hong Kong as a father. "A lot of authoritarian governments start by brainwashing the young," he says. "I want to capture how banal it is. In the past few years, we can see all the absurd, day-to-day, nonsensical decisions and statements by our government."
For Joshua Wong, a 19-year-old former student activist and Umbrella Movement leader who recently started his own political party, Ten Years isn't fiction at all, but "a documentary telling us what's in store in the future."
He notes the recent disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who were selling books critical of Chinese leaders. They later reappeared in Chinese media, claiming nothing was wrong. One bookseller broke the silence in June and said mainland police kept him for months in a tiny room and interrogated him without charging him with any crime.
"A lot of people say [Ten Years] went too far in making predictions," Wong says. "But if something as absurd as the bookseller case can happen in Hong Kong, can we really rule out anything in the future?"
Although there is no official censorship in Hong Kong, the response to the movie points to self-censorship, says film industry veteran Kenneth Ip, better known as Shu Kei, chair of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts School of Film and Television.
After January's Chinese editorial condemned Ten Years, local Hong Kong cinemas — which maintain business interests on the mainland — stopped showing it. "Everyone fell in line," he says. "It's pretty pathetic."
Still, public demand was so great that community groups organized packed public screenings across Hong Kong in markets, universities, bike shops and even in front of government headquarters.
Something similar happened in June, when the global cosmetics company Lancôme canceled a planned concert by pro-democracy singer Denise Ho, citing "possible safety reasons," after Chinese state media criticized her. Ho performed anyway.
"This shows the Communist Party is fragile," Shu Kei says. "Why do they take the effort to attack this?"
Zhang Jing-yi, a journalism student from Shanghai studying in Hong Kong, says she enjoyed parts of Ten Years, and the state media reaction doesn't surprise her at all.
But she thinks the film goes too far in some cases. In one vignette, a taxi driver is banned from picking up passengers from Hong Kong's airport and central business district because he speaks Cantonese and not Mandarin, the dominant language of mainland China.
In Zhang's experience, some Hong Kong residents are so worried about China's influence that their treatment of mainlanders like her borders on discrimination. Even hearing people speak Mandarin riles some, she says, as does seeing simplified Chinese characters on TV. (Hong Kong still favors traditional Chinese characters).
"As an outsider," she says, "I feel like they're overreacting a little at times. If a poster uses simplified characters, it's not necessarily malicious. Not everything has political undertones."
Choi, Ten Years' executive producer, says the question he gets asked the most in Hong Kong is whether he's scared, if people have been threatening or following him since the film was released.
"Of course this hasn't happened," he says. "The movie was shot legally, shown legally. But the fact that people asked us this more than any other question is itself a problem. It shows that if you do something like this in Hong Kong, people find it brave for some reason. But to us, we're just doing our jobs."