Yesterday’s Hong Kong Film Awards proved to be something of a culmination point for one of this past year’s biggest underdog stories of national cinema. Produced on a shoestring budget, the five-part anthology film Ten Years was originally released to just one Hong Kong screen where it sold more tickets than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The number of venues quickly inflated in response, with the film eventually grossing HK$6 million, a figure ten times its initial cost. The feature’s surprising commercial success was matched by its critical reception, and the accolades reflect this, taking home the HKFA for Best Film at the prestigious event on April 3rd.
But if you happened to get your information through the establishment media of the People’s Republic of China, you may have received a very different story, if any story at all. For the first time since the state-owned company started airing the annual ceremony in 1991, China Central Television chose not to broadcast the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards. Meanwhile, major websites from the mainland, including Asia’s largest internet company Tencent and world’s biggest Chinese-language web portal Sina, covered the event without giving any mention to the best picture winner. And looking at the content of this film-which-shall-not-be-named, it’s no mystery why.
Set a decade into the future, Ten Years is a work of speculative fiction that presents a dystopic vision of a Hong Kong increasingly oppressed by the imposed influence of mainland China. In one of the film’s five vignettes, an old woman burns to death in protest in front of the British consolate. In another, government officials orchestrate a political assassination to garner support for authoritative new legislation.
Evidently, the film has struck a chord with anxious filmgoers of the territory. “Ten Years exposed the fear of Hong Kong people (towards China),” stated one of the film’s directors, Chow Kwun-wai, according to a BBC report, while producer Andrew Choi, speaking of the award said, “It’s important for Hong Kong that a film that echoes so much of what people are feeling in their hearts has won.” As one would expect, critics from the mainland were less enthusiastic, with the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times referring to the film’s political message as a ‘virus of the mind’.
Ironically, the biased, censor-heavy response of the monitored media to this provocative feature may prove in itself to be a foreshadowing of Hong Kong cinema’s own future. Between the Hong Kong film industry’s commercial decline in the last decade and the increasing economic and political ties linking the territory to Taiwan and the mainland, it’s quite possible that Hong Kong’s era of creative independence has entered its winding down period, with a growing number of its major releases becoming joint productions with mainland China. In this light, Ten Years could be considered both an exception to the trend and perhaps one of the last of its kind.
Historically, the People’s Republic’s censorship policies have driven many an artist underground, and while there have certainly been examples in recent decades of subversive Chinese directors successfully working within the system (the world-renowned Jia Zhangke has released such state-approved pictures as The World with all the bite of his early work), the recent response to Ten Years is a troubling reminder of the government’s intentions to keep the republic as a relative ideological echo chamber. Moreover, with China’s box office share projected to be the largest in the world by 2017, it is increasingly becoming in the interest of Hong Kong and Hollywood producers alike to appeal to these constrictive standards.
Whether this authoritative interference will eventually engulf the Hong Kong film culture, or the success of Ten Years is an early step in the industry’s rejuvenation, this incendiary work may prove to be even more relevant than initially intended.