Young film-makers sound a 'warning' of future Hong Kong

Dialect, directed by Au, tells of a dystopian future where taxi drivers who cannot speak putonghua have to put up a sign on their vehicles and are prohibited from picking up passengers at the airport and checkpoints. The creative force behind Ten Yea
The creative force behind Ten Years, an indie anthology of five short films, include (from left) executive producer Andrew Choi, directors Jevons Au Man Kit, Ng Ka Leung and Chow Kwun Wai. They are seen here at the Lennon Wall near the Occupy movement site in Admiralty, Hong Kong.ST PHOTO:LI XUEYING
A scene from the short film Local Egg, directed by Ng. He says he was inspired by what he describes as "self-censorship" among people he had spoken to, including academics who feel the need to toe a certain political line.
A scene from the short film Local Egg, directed by Ng. He says he was inspired by what he describes as "self-censorship" among people he had spoken to, including academics who feel the need to toe a certain political line.PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Dialect, directed by Au, tells of a dystopian future where taxi drivers who cannot speak putonghua have to put up a sign on their vehicles and are prohibited from picking up passengers at the airport and checkpoints. The creative force behind Ten Yea
Dialect, directed by Au, tells of a dystopian future where taxi drivers who cannot speak putonghua have to put up a sign on their vehicles and are prohibited from picking up passengers at the airport and checkpoints. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Their movie a 'call to arms' against elimination of HK culture but critics call it scare-mongering

In mid-conversation, film-maker Jevons Au Man Kit's attention drifts.

At the next table, a group chatters on, in Mandarin, or putonghua as it is known here.

It is, for Au, part of a disorienting soundscape that has taken root in his home. As a screenwriter for directors such as Johnnie To, he has watched Hong Kong's veteran film-makers struggle with Mandarin dialogue instead of using their native Cantonese on co-productions with Chinese studios.

Such films fall under a government policy purporting to benefit Hong Kong film-makers but Au - looking at neighbouring Guangdong where Cantonese is being officially sidelined - believes it is part of an attempt to "eliminate Hong Kong culture".

"The authorities want us to rely on the mainland. If we have to rely on its economy, we have to follow its system, its culture, its way."

And so, in 10 years, this is how Hong Kong could look: The lingua franca is now putonghua. Taxi drivers who cannot speak it have to put up a sign on their vehicles and are prohibited from picking up passengers at the airport and checkpoints. The protagonist's son talks to him in a language he barely understands.

It is a scenario depicted in Mr Au's short film - one of five segments in Ten Years, an indie anthology that portrays a dystopian future for Hong Kong come 2025.

Made with a budget of HK$600,000 (S$110,000) and initially showing at just one theatre, Ten Years has since racked up a surprising HK$4.3 million at the box office - and snared a Best Film nomination at the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards.

A Taiwan commercial release is planned, while the film is also being submitted to film festivals, including in Singapore.

It contains a clear running theme: a Hong Kong whose identity and values are under the attack of communist China.

So there is a story about a pair of hapless goons hired to mount an assassination bid on politicians, thus allowing the authorities to ram home the controversial national security legislation, Article 23.

Another, Local Egg, tells of a provision shop owner grappling with young children, including his son, brainwashed as "youth guards" to condemn locally made products and "undesirable" publications.

And in the most shocking segment, Self-Immolator, a protestor sets herself on fire in front of the British consulate to support an independence movement .

It is hardly subtle - the message is wielded with the force of a sledgehammer, and the film has been criticised by some as scare-mongering propaganda.

But in a Hong Kong unnerved about its future - most recently over the disappearance of bookseller Lee Bo, which many believe involves Chinese state agents, Ten Years is extremely effective in playing to and reflecting their fears.

On a Thursday morning, filmgoers leave a screening in Kowloon Bay, sombre-faced. Some dab at their eyes.

One, pastor Ronald Cheung, 62, says: "This is like a worst-case scenario, a real reminder of what Hong Kong may become if we are not careful."

Commentators, including respected film critic Shu Kei, have praised the film, calling it "the most important - if not the best - Hong Kong film of the year".

And in an indication that Ten Years has caught the attention of the Chinese authorities, state tabloid Global Times has lambasted it as "absurd", saying: "If the film-makers want to scare the public in Hong Kong and spread anxiety, they should consider what consequences this will have on the city."

The directors tell The Sunday Times the film is not a prophecy of what Hong Kong will be like in 2025, but rather a "warning" of what it could become if current trends are not arrested.

In that sense, it is, they say, a call to arms. Chow Kwun Wai, who directed Self-Immolator, says: "It is ridiculous what is happening in Hong Kong today. We should not be having to face such challenges to 'one country, two systems', such as with the Lee Bo case.

"And we should not be adapting to it, and accepting that this is how things are. Hong Kongers need to protest more. Occupy (the movement) failed because not enough of us showed up. And we need to petition not just the Hong Kong government but also the British consulate and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)."

Ng Ka Leung, who directed Local Egg, says he was inspired by what he describes as "self-censorship" among people he had spoken to, including academics who feel the need to toe a certain political line. He admits that there is no hard evidence to show that they are being compelled but adds: "It is about how people feel, their fears."

This includes the film industry's reaction to Ten Years, they say.

The five directors, mostly in their 30s, while not big names, are not novices. Chow, for instance, has directed a feature film starring A-lister Jacky Cheung, while Au is co-anchoring a trilogy produced by To.

"A lot of people asked, 'Aren't you afraid? You won't be able to work in China,' " recounts Chow. A prominent actor wanted to be in his segment but was advised against it.

"I wish Hong Kongers will not think money is the most important. They are following the market, rather than their morals," he asserts.

One question, though, is whether the film could be counterproductive. Its bleakness, for one thing, may engender deadly fatalism - surveys have shown that Hong Kongers are already pessimistic about their future and more are, anecdotally, looking at emigrating.

For another, the tactics it advocates and the sentiments it stokes could push Beijing into an even more hard-line reaction.

The directors have differing views on this. Argues Chow: "Whether it works or not does not matter; what matters is whether it is right or wrong in principle."

Au takes a more circumspect view, saying he believes the "tragedy" portrayed in the film will "help everyone make the right choice".

"Nobody wants to see that happen - even the authorities."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Young film-makers sounda 'warning' of future Hong Kong'. Print Edition | Subscribe