“If Hong Kong people knew they are being raped by the Communist Party,why not just lie down and enjoy it?”
-Raymond Wu, former member of the Hong Kong Basic Drafting Committee during the handover
Featured for the first time in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in November 2015, the Hongkongese film Ten Years (Sap nin) received worldwide attention after the Chinese government censored the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards for featuring the film. Despite being an independent production with a very low-budget, Ten Years not only managed to win the Best Film award –competing against films such as Mandarin-language Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain–, but also a mention at the 22nd Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award and a Board Special Award at the 10th Hong Kong Film Directors’s Yearly Award. More famously, Ten Years beat out Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens at the only cinema where it was initially released. Following public demand, on April 1st Ten Years was screened both online and in 34 locations all around Hong Kong, with thousands of people attending. I managed to watch it at the time but couldn’t take any notes to review it properly. Now, thanks to a friend here in Hong Kong, I managed to get my hands on a pirate DVD copy of the film, which is not out yet, and dissect it to its core. Here is a complete review –with almost no spoilers– of the five stories that compose Ten Years.
Extras (Fau gwaa, lit. “Floating melons”)
During the celebration of Labour Day (May 1st) in 2020, government officials from Hong Kong and China, aided by the ex-Commissioner of the Hong Kong police and the triads, plot to orchestrate the false assassination of two leaders from the True Love Union and Fortune Party, Miss Lam King Chee and Mr. Yeung Kam Wa. For this matter, they hire a low-level triad member and an immigrant from India, each one meant to shot one of the politicians. With this scheme, the Chinese government plans to instigate fear so people in Hong Kong won’t be reluctant to accept the new National Security Law. After their plot succeeds, the Liaison Office announces that Hong Kong has become a “Base for Subversion of foreign powers” (typical Chinese excuse for everything) and implements the National Security Law (whose contents are not clearly specified, but see the fourth story).
Followers of the Avengers franchise probably remember a similar plot in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Hydra has secretly infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. to cause global chaos in order to make people surrender their freedom in exchange of security. This is not just science-fiction. In 1927 the US government added hazardous chemicals to alcohol to reduce consumption, after they failed to reduce it with the 18th Amendment seven years before. In August 1964 the USS Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, thus prompting the Congress to pass a resolution to intervene in Vietnam –but the Vietnamese attack never happened. “False flag” operations have been used for a long time by governments to justify wars, undermine political opponents, or control public opinion.
Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote in 1755 that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” –an image of the growth of the State and the reduction of individual liberties that we can see in any Communist and Socialist country today.
Season of the End (Dung sim, lit. “Winter cicada”)
This is the most symbolic of the five shorts –the “unreal” story of two rebels, Wong Ching and Lau Ho-chi, trying to preserve objects from homes destroyed by bulldozers for urban renewal. They get parts of the house of their friend Eddie and the objects within, reconstructing and cataloging them in their residence at Tai Kok Sui. They are basically “taxidermizing” Hong Kong, since “taxidermy is for what is dying and disappearing, not living things”. The symbolism does not end here: it is said that there are more broken pieces of the old Hong Kong than actual objects. Just like animals through natural history, the “rebels” are faced with the question of whether they should embrace Hong Kong’s extinction as something natural or resist. At the end, Lau asks Wong Ching to make a specimen out of him –not because he is unable to accept the new changes in the city, but to preserve his ideals. Is it nostalgia? Or is it a matter of principles?
Watching “Season of the End” one cannot but recall Hong Kong drama When Heaven Burns (Tin jyu dei) and its ending theme, “Youthful ignorance” (Ninsiu mou zi, English translation here), also censored in China: “If living was more open, then it would be discovered that yesterday’s principles have not grown old”. The collapsing of liberty in Hong Kong, the increasing use of Mandarin and Simplified Chinese characters, and dreary and dreadful chapters such as the kidnapping of five booksellers by the Chinese government in foreign soil are not the choice of Hongkongers, but an imposition from above. It is not a matter of “natural evolution”, of people freely choosing to use Mandarin instead of Cantonese, and although many Hongkongers doesn’t seem to care about their own future, the voice of those who do should also be taken into consideration. As “Season of the End” remarks, “an insect that lives only in summer cannot be expected to know what ice is”. Those whose voice is being neglected are like the “Winter cicadas” in the original Cantonese title –the only ones who are able to witness not only the summer, but also the upcoming winter.
In 2020 –the date of the first short– the Chinese government, through the “Mandarin Universal Access Policy”, has made Mandarin the only official language of Hong Kong, and all taxi drivers are expected to pass a proficiency test. Taxi drivers such as Leung Kin-ping, who are unable to learn Mandarin, are not only ridiculed and marginalized, but they also face restrictions –they cannot take passengers from the airport, the Cruise Terminal, and the business districts of Central, Admiralty and Kwun Tong. Though a series of vignettes, we observe Leung’s dismay as his wife reprimands him for talking in Cantonese to his son and passengers take another taxi because he does not speak Mandarin. He also faces problems of communication with his own son, who uses Sinicized Cantonese when speaking about Beckham, and has problems communicating with his Mandarin-GPS, unable to understand his pronunciation. There are also a number of parallel stories, where we see schooling in Mandarin, local bars with Mandarin-speaking staff, and a woman who gets fired because she is unable to explain herself in Mandarin to a client. Even foreigners speak to Leung in Mandarin, rather than English.
This is probably one of the most actual tales portrayed in Ten Years, since the increasing number of mainland immigrants, tourists, and students has triggered government responses restricting the use of Cantonese and public services are now Mandarin-friendly. In some way, Leung has become like Lam Kwong (Andy Lau) in Runaway Blues (1989), where the lead actor feels himself displaced and illiterate in a Mainland China that only uses Simplified characters. He is also not different from Lau Ho-chi in the previous short “Season of the End” –a relic of the past, a memento of nostalgia of a city that no longer exists.
This touching story opens with a flag of China and a view of the Tower of the Bank of China (an unintended reference to Hong Kong Godfather (1991)’s final scene and to Wicked City (1992)?), and the burning remains of an unidentified body who self-immolated in front of the British Consulate-General in Admiralty. He is believed to be related to the Hong Kong Independence movement and to Au-yeung Kin-fun, a 21 years old demonstrator who died one week before. Au-yeung was a supporter of Hong Kong independence, and also believed that China had violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the British government should intervene in the process of self-determination. For this, Au-yeung is arrested for terrorism –the first victim of the National Security Law Article 23 enacted after the 2020 riots (see the first story). After the immolation, a group of youths takes the Liaison Office in Sai Wan and sets it on fire, while a demonstration of Christians praying for the dead with candles (a reference to the demonstrators remembering the Tian’anmen Massacre) congregates in front of the British Consulate-General, asking the British government to include Hong Kong within the United Nations Trusted Territories to achieve universal suffrage. The Hong Kong government then requests the assistance of the People’s Liberation Army, and tanks stroll through Central (the place where the Umbrella Revolution took place). The story ends with a university professor being arrested by the Chinese secret police for speaking against the government in an interview.
Enhanced with symbolical images that recall the events of the Umbrella Revolution and the emblematic stumple of Margaret Thatcher in the Great Hall of the PRC in 1982, after negotiating Hong Kong’s handover, “Self-immolator” touches one important political problem: the Sino-British Joint Declaration. As Marco, one of the youths who sets fire to the Liaison Office, explains,
“Hong Kong is at a standstill, anything ruined because of non-violent civil disobedience. If you say they are still upholding the Declaration reread the terms, it states clearly that all except diplomatic and national security matters are none of the Communist Party’s business. They are the one’s breaking the law, not us”.
Indeed, as I have explained before here, Hong Kong’s situation can no longer be resolved with pacific demonstrations –those only work when the government listens to the people and can be accountable for its crimes. As Frédéric Bastiat explained in The Law, “each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property”, and when these three things are threatened by the force of the government, only a more violent force can take them back.
Local Egg (Bundei daan)
As his son walks away to join the newly formed Youth Guards (a modern version of the Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution), Sam, a grocery store keeper, is told that the government is closing the chicken farm of his supplier –the last one in Hong Kong. Central planning has decided that Hong Kong doesn’t need to produce its own eggs anymore –for China can provide a rich variety of chemically enhanced eggs–. While the government is killing the local industry and making Hong Kong dependent on China –as it actually does, for example, with the water–, Sam’s store is also being inspected by the Youth Guards because he uses the label “local” for his eggs, a forbidden word because of its political connotations.
If you think this sounds stupid, you probably know nothing about the Chinese Communist Party. Some years ago, when the fateful date of June 4 approached (the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre), the Chinese government instructed taxi drivers to remove the windows’s cranks so their passengers could not throw ping pong balls bearing reactionary messages. Also, carrier pigeons were banned from flying and images of candles were also forbidden in the capital. What did you expect? It’s China!
At one point of the story, Sam’s son is seen patrolling a bookstore selling books in Simplified Chinese. But unlike his companions, he knows they are being manipulated by the government and slips a list of forbidden items into a popular manga –Ikigami, which tells the dystopian story of a future nation where kids are randomly selected to die for the nation following the National Prosperity Law and those against are condemned for “thought crime”. At the end, we see how the bookseller keeps all his forbidden items at a rental house, hidden from the public, and only to be seen by those who still believe in freedom.
The movie ends with a remarkable quote: “When you feel it is already too late, that is exactly the earliest time”.
Ten Years may be an independent film, but its production values are strong enough to capture the audience and rival with other Hong Kong films. I would have personally enjoyed seeing half of the city with signs in Simplified Chinese –just like the bookstore in “Local Egg” sells books from China rather than Hong Kong– or the Hong Kong Police (gingcaat) renamed to Public Safety (gong’an), the Communist word employed in China. But overall the film is not only inspiring, but also quite relevant and more current than ever –it should even be renamed to Today, rather than Ten Years.
For instance, the assassination attempt lead by an Indian immigrant in the first story is instrumentalized by the government to attack minorities in Hong Kong. Similarly, when a Hong Kong store owner was stabbed inside his 7-Eleven in Yau Ma Tei by a Vietnamese on March 9, 2016, some sectors affiliated to the Chinese government took advantage of the situation to call attention to the dangers of Hong Kong minorities, especially South Asia and Pakistan-Indian immigrants.
Likewise, the second story holds important up-to-date issues. Firstly, it takes place in Tai Kok Sui. I am not sure if this is meant to be relevant, but Tai Kok Sui area was renewed to build the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link in 2010 (between China and Hong Kong) and many residents protested, fearing buildings may collapse. More recently, the Hong Kong government has proposed to renew old buildings, which basically means “bulldozing” them down. There are 6.200 private buildings older than 50 years in Hong Kong, and the government has accepted that the elderly could stay in their buildings for some time –Alas! Receiving then less in compensation when they take it down. This also means that, giving the housing problem of the city, these privately owned houses won’t pass down to the next generation, who will have to find a way to get a new house. As one of the protagonists of the first story states:
“I came here with a One-Way Permit in 2003. Whatever I did, it went wrong. When I was a chef, the restaurant closed down; when I was a construction worker, there was labor-outsourcing problem. No one would know even if you died. Then I tried to be a taxi driver, and they asked me to take a Mandarin test. Public housing was the worst. I have been waiting for over a decade, and still there’s nothing”.
The third story has also an interesting precedent, since in 2003 the Transport Department of Hong Kong tried to force drivers to learn Mandarin to avoid problems with Chinese tourists. As a sign reads in every Chinese school, university, and bank: “Speak Mandarin, Write Official Characters [i.e., Simplified Chinese], Be Civilized”.
“Self-immolator”, the fourth short of this collection, recalls the actual self-immolators in Tibet and East Turkistan –two regions invaded by the Chinese government with powerful independent movements– and also the practice of some Falun Gong protestors. It also sets an important question: Are these immolations really useful? After all, they have achieved nothing but decreasing the number of protestors. The Chinese Communist Party just has to sit down and contemplate how the rebels die one by one under the fire of their own self-inflicted suffering. Furthermore, the images of demonstrators being brutally attacked by the police are nothing new anymore –we have seen it since the Umbrella Revolution, and we can expect more.
Finally, “Local egg” prophetically portraits Chinese secret police taking individuals away in Hong Kong soil –something that actually happened to the five missing publishers who were in charge of anti-government publications. And just like we see in the movie, forbidden books in Hong Kong can only be found today in special bookstores, “hidden” in the second floor of some narrow private apartment.
Ten Years is not a story about the future of Hong Kong. It is an almost faithful portrayal of its present.