New York Asian 2016 Interview: TEN YEARS Creators on Running Afoul of Mainland Chinese Government and Future of Hong Kong

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New York Asian 2016 Interview: TEN YEARS Creators on Running Afoul of Mainland Chinese Government and Future of Hong Kong
The mainland Chinese government labelled Ten Years a “virus of the mind” and accused its creators of “spreading anxiety.”  After the film, a collection of shorts pondering Hong Kong’s future, was nominated for Best Picture by the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, the Mainland opted not to broadcast the ceremonies on television or online.  
 
Yet, true to the spirit of Hong Kong, after Ten Years was unceremoniously pulled out of packed moviehouses, it was summarily screened privately in HK universities, churches, under bridges, and even in front of government headquarters, where large crowds viewed the film despite the unofficial official ban. 
 
The five directors and producer brought their film to the New York Asian Film Festival and spoke with me about the unexpected firestorm and the equally astonishing support from the Hong Kong public – if not its celebrities – Ten Years has received. 
 
Ten Years Filmmakers: 
- Ng Ka-leung (director/producer): Local Egg
- Jevons Au (director): Dialect
- Chow Kwun-wai (director): Self-Immolator
- Kwok Zune (director): Extras
- Wong Fei-pang (director): Season of the End
- Andrew Choi (producer): Ten Years
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  When did you get the sense that something different was happening with this movie?
 
Andrew Choi: The first showing the film in December of last year and I think it was in January that there was a Chinese government newspaper called the Global Times that wrote an article, actually it was a review, saying that we are spreading a virus, that we were pessimistic.  I think it was the first time that we were mentioned by the so-called mainland government voice. 
 
Of course, later on, different media came out and said that we were really reflecting what is happening in Hong Kong.  So I think it was the whole media response that made us think that our film is actually kind of making an impact to the Hong Kong community.  And of course the story about our screenings came out; we were shown in the cinema for eight weeks, but even later on, though they were full houses, we didn’t have the opportunity to continue our screenings for various reasons, but we knew the reason behind it. 
 
Later on, we were nominated for the Hong Kong Best Film award, and for me, personally, the first time that I felt real pressure was when the mainland China TV station, CCTV, and one of the major online media outlets said they were not broadcasting the Hong Kong film awards.  I thought, ‘Are we making such a big impact in the mainland in China?’  
 
I was thinking we were just a very low budget film by five young directors, how can our film become such a big influence?  I think that was when they were really starting to look into our film.  I think it was that experience that made us feel that Ten Years has really raised some concerns; positively, and of course a lot of people are against our whole movie.
 
LMD:  There are many Asian filmmakers gathered here at the Festival, but what was interesting for me as press was that we were told specifically to not ask about TEN YEARS with regard to certain stars who shall remain nameless…
 
Kwok Zune:  We know!  We heard about that already. {All laugh.}
 
LMD:  The stars in question didn’t really have anything to do with your movie, but we were given that warning anyway, so I get a sense of celebrities distancing themselves from you, but I’m curious if you had any well-known Hong Kong artists come out in support of the film?
 
{Long, thoughtful silence ensues.}
 
Kwok Zune:  Adam Wong, the director of She Remembers, He Forgets, and some young artists and actors who are popular with the young generation, like Neo Yau Hawk-Sau, who is in our film, Self-immolation.  He has openly said he is supportive of Ten Years.  
 
{Otherwise, there’s.} not so many.
 
LMD: Ng Ka-leung, I understand that the entire project began with you.  Can you please talk about how you found five other like-minded filmmakers to collaborate on this piece with you?
 
Ng Ka-leung:  Actually, at the beginning, we didn’t think that would make five different stories.  At the beginning, Andrew contacted Jevons, and Jevons said, “Don’t be stupid.” {Laughs.} “You’ve got just a limited budget, how about making a film with different directors with different perspectives, to make maybe five short films would be good to talk about the future of Hong Kong?” 
 
But before that, actually we just asked some simple questions, what is your dream?  What is going on in Hong Kong?  And we started to talk with different people and asked three questions; one was, is there anything that happened you in the past ten years that made you what you are, or lead to where you are today?  The second question was, what obstacles are they facing today?  The third question was, what do you think about the future? 
 
I found out when I asked these three questions, that they all had the strongest reaction to the third question; they all have this desire and energy to get out of the current predicament.  That’s why I decided to make this film project based on this third question; what do you think is going to happen in the future?  That’s when I started contacting Jevons Au to collaborate with me on this project.
 
LMD:  Besides its political message, TEN YEARS is a really beautiful film, aesthetically. Each sequence has its own very distinct style, artistically and narratively, but to have all these filmmakers with such different styles, did you discuss the structure of the film and how it would flow harmoniously?
 
Andrew Choi:  We gave total freedom for each director to create their own stories.  Of course we had meetings before they wrote the scripts about which topic they were interested in.  I think our basic line was, don’t have a similar story line, and that was it.  And then they went out to do their research, so we have a different style.  
 
Initially, we didn’t have the order of the sequences of the films: After all the production was finished, we started watching the rough cuts of the films and we set up the order then.  I think that we gave the directors total freedom to portray their point of view of Hong Kong and what’s happening in Hong Kong in the future, and that’s it.  The order that we have now was basically decided later.
 
LMD:  In the film, SELF-IMMOLATOR, there’s a wonderful line about the act of self-immolation that says, “It is not necessarily a desperate move, it could be a flame to light up hope.” I wonder if that is part of the overall sense behind TEN YEARS?  To hear your critics from mainland China, you guys are trying to incite fear in the Hong Kong people, but I would like to hear from you what exactly your intention was in making this film?
 
Chow Kwun-wai:  If you’re asking about that particular line in the film, I guess for me it is the most positive way to look at self-immolation.  It can have many interpretations: For some, self-immolation can be peaceful, for others, it can be violent because it involves burning and dying, but the point that I trying to make is to start a discussion.  
 
I don’t want the act of self-immolation to be 100% good or 100% bad.  To me, this could be one of the many ways of protest about Hong Kong as an independent city or nation.  So, self-immolation is one of the ways that you can express your thoughts about this, but my main point of making this segment of using self-immolation as a topic is to ask questions.  I’m here to bring up the questions for people to ponder.
 
On a more personal level, I want to give hope and I also want to convey the power and the spirit of sacrifice.  You might have probably noticed that in my story, the person who committed the self-immolation never spoke a word; they were silent.  It’s just an act.  The self-immolation itself is an act; it is not a stand on any particular public goal, or ideal, or perspective, or opinion.  Because I felt that once the self-immolator starts speaking, you’re adding opinion or perspective into the picture. 
 
What I wanted to bring out from the act of self-immolation was to think about justice, independent thinking, forms of protest, and also I hope the viewers can see the act of self-immolation as a symbol of hope, that, we, as Hong Kong people, can be like the self-immolator and sacrifice yourself for your own Hong Kong.
 
LMD:  After watching the film and reading about all the controversy, I was worried about you guys and what you must have endured at home.  Have you directly felt any kind of pressure or blocking with regard to your filmmaking from the Mainland?
 
Andrew Choi:  Not directly.  We’ve never tried to go to China after we made the movie, but I think there are some trails that you can see.  People are also concerned about us. 
 
Jevons can tell more.  He has a new project coming up and the investor kind of told him because he wanted to invite Ka-leung to become a producer on his new film, and that particular investor said he shouldn’t invite any of the Ten Years crew to be on his film.
 
That kind of thing I think happens not just to him, but also to Wong Fei-pang, who almost got a job as a cinematographer on a film, and at a later stage, he was excluded from the crew.
 
So, I think this kind of thing is happening, and of course it’s not directly by the government officials, but I think people kind of are aware that these guys are kind of dangerous and they don’t want to get too close to us.
 
Jevons Au:  These are things that are happening in Hong Kong.  They don’t want to get into trouble.  Just like in New York, how you are worried about us, they are also worried that if they have a close relationship with us, they are afraid.  In Hong Kong now, the political environment there is quite sensitive.
 
LMD:  Did you originally have any intention that the film would be seen internationally?  And if so, or now that it is being seen by audiences outside of Hong Kong, do you worry that those audiences might not get all the references in the film?
 
Jevons Au:  Actually, this film was so low budget, we hadn’t thought that we would have so many responses, or such large audiences from the public.  We didn’t expect that we would get an international release, or that we would show it at film festivals.  We never thought of that.  We just thought that we were just trying to do what we wanted to do, and what we believed, and to be honest to ourselves to work on a project like this.  
 
We thought it was just a local independent project; we never wanted to be commercial.  I don’t think we really expected an international audience.  But first and foremost, I think we were really concerned about the people around us: We wanted to show the audience, the youngsters, we wanted to have some kind of private screenings, we didn’t initially have any ambitions.  The idea of this project for me was just to relieve my expression, my fears, my emotions about Hong Kong.
 
Andrew Choi:  After we had been to several film festivals, like Osaka, like Singapore, London, Italy, I think we were surprised that even though our film has a very local context about Hong Kong, that people kind of get the message.  That there are echoes about how we all need to think about our own future in our own cities.  I think that kind of message echoes into the audiences that we’ve been to, no matter where.  Some of the topics that we bring up kind of hit the audience, as well.  So, I think we are surprised.  We could never have imagined that.  We are curious about how the audience in the US will respond to our film.
 
LMD:  Director Ng has said in previous interviews that the film was not inspired by the Umbrella Revolution, but it happened and it appears in the film.  The use of the footage kind of showed me that there is this huge likeness of mind between your film and young Hong Kongers.  What kind of responses have you had from audiences that have been gratifying; that have showed support. or made you feel that you did the right thing in making TEN YEARS?
 
Ng Ka-leung:  I definitely felt that making Ten Years was a great decision to make.  I believe we asked the right questions, and judging from the audience’s reaction from various screenings, they tell us that we all have some kind of a consensus.  We have this common understanding or realisation; whether it be hopelessness, the wish to change, or the feeling that there is no exit for Hong Kong right now.  The five of us were just trying to express our own thoughts and our own concerns and our own worries about the home that were living in.  
 
Through the film medium, we were able to express the questions that we wanted to ask about our concerns.  From the audience’s reaction, we were actually quite glad to realise that we were not the only ones that were asking these questions.  We were willing to honestly ask these questions and when we’d go to the audience screenings, the audience would come up and say, “Thank you for making this for Hong Kong.”  
 
They may not say a lot to us; we might not start having a political discussion, but the idea that they would just come up and say. ‘Hey, thank you for making this movie for the Hong Kong people,’ even though they didn’t say a lot, it meant a lot.  It tells us that there’s some connection between us and the viewers and that we were asking the right questions.
 
In addition to the live audience reaction that we would get after a commercial theater screening, many communities, many organisations, they also held their own community screenings in schools and churches.  We didn’t initiate that.  They asked, can we show your film in our school, in our church, in our community?  It tells us that in a way, there are many more people beyond those who saw this in the theater that are trying to support us.
 
Kwok Zune:  I think it’s interesting that after the screenings of the films, several important incidents happened, just like the disappearance of the bookseller, the conflicts in Hong Kong - if you’ve heard about them- and people just directly thought about our film.  Like Ng’s segment, Local Egg, and the Voice of Hong Kong Independence, and people thought about his segment.  I think it’s interesting that the film is synchronised with the audience and it has a very strong reference to reality.  Definitely, at that point, I think we have done the right thing, because even though the film is talking about the future, but we are making a movie for the people now.  So that’s good.
 
LMD:  The whole movie just rings in your head after the last sequence, but then there’s the end credit with a quote from the prophet Amos, and then the words “Already too late” appear on screen, which then disappear and say, “Not too late.”  Please tell me what you meant by these words?
 
Ng Ka-leung:  Regarding what you mentioned about the change of words from too late to not too late, I feel that it is never too late.  And why is that?  Because it really depends on what you are going after, what you are trying to achieve.  The five stories within this film, they all talk about real things that are happening right now.  Even though it is set in the future, these are not imaginary scenarios.  To us, it is actually happening.  But in the end, whether we believe it or not, like Fei Pang always mentioned, the question always comes back to what is it to be a man, to be a human, to be a person?  Sometimes we have to let certain things go.  
 
The reason we used the ancient quote was to let people realise that the darkness that we are facing now is not new; it’s been happening for centuries, back in ancient times.  History repeats itself, but it’s the value and the spirit that we need to preserve.  If we look at just only what is happening now, with all these issues and crises, we may think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s too late.’
 
Booksellers are getting kidnapped and detained, snatched right in the middle of Hong Kong; it’s too late, freedom is gone.  But, if we step back and look at history, then what we want to achieve is never too late.  This is the message that we want the audience to take home with them at the end when they see the switching of the message.
 
Look, it might feel pessimistic, but we don’t think so.  We still think there’s time to change things, but it is up to you to make the right decisions.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Hong KongIndependent CinemaNYAFF 2016Ten YearsUmbrella Revolution