Ten Years – Review (London Film Festival)

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Following the signing of the Sino-British Declaration in 1984 there was a great deal of uncertainty in Hong Kong, with many who lived there wondering what could happen in 1997 when power passed, to some degree, from Great Britain to China. Would Hong Kong remain an autonomous territory, as was promised, and what affect would the behemoth that is China have on the comparatively tiny Hong Kong?

In 2014 the Umbrella Movement came into being and a series of protests happened in the centre of Hong Kong, a response to recent attempts by the Chinese government to exert an, undemocratic, influence on elections in Hong Kong. Even before the Umbrella Movement began making headlines, producer and director Ng Ka-leung was already beginning work on what would be Ten Years, a portmanteau film that features five shorts imagining a future for Hong Kong – all are set in 2025 – that sees the territory’s culture and very existence under threat.

The first of these films is Extras, a black and white short that surrounds the planning of a false-flag assassination attempt that will help ensure the ‘National Security Law’ is passed – a very real and controversial law that is presented in the film to be something that will be used to strengthen the Chinese Government’s position and weaken civil liberties. The snappy dialogue between characters in Extras is perhaps some of the best of the five shorts, and the film features a couple of memorable and occasionally amusing performances from Courtney Wu and Peter Chan, who play the hapless would be assassins. The film works very well as a self-contained story that sees the filmmakers leaning into the political message, but not forgetting to also tell a good yarn.

Following Extras is Season of the End, an abstract, arch and occasionally almost impenetrable film which sees two Hong Kong residents slowly cataloguing and preserving everyday objects, before turning on themselves, in an effort to preserve absolutely everything. The metaphor for Hong Kong and the country’s erasure seems clear from the outset and Season of the End fails to move very far past this initial point, becoming something of a labour despite it’s short running time. Season of the End does shine in other areas though, and is perhaps the most interestingly made, with a great deal of care placed on tying the look and sound of the film to the story.

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Perhaps more simplistic, but far more successful due to an elegance in its construction is Dialect, a film that sees an ordinary Hong Kong taxi driver struggling with new laws that see him unable to do his job unless he learns Mandarin. The law may seem on the surface somewhat innocuous and just a minor inconvenience at first, but the way in which the pressure weighs down upon the driver, played with affecting sadness and despair by Leung Kin-ping, is palpable, and the filmmakers do an expert job of illustrating how important something that may seem like a minor inconvenience can be to the survival of a culture.

Self-Immolater differs from the other four films in that it is a faux documentary that includes a number of talking heads and somewhat illogical – for a documentary – footage that seeks to investigate the death of a protestor, who self-immolated in front of the British Consulate-General. Some of the acting in this segment is a little weak and unconvincing and the earnestness of the film does begin to grate a little, but the climax of the film really works – in spite of an unfortunate logic gap – and makes for an extremely emotional end to the story.

The final film in the piece is a reasonably well-made, if somewhat overly simplistic, tale of a man persecuted for advertising the eggs in his shop as being ‘local’. The filmmakers dabble in some effectively disturbing Orwellian ideas thoughout and the use of the experienced Liu Kai-chi in the central role – a character actor known for playing similar downtrodden guys – is a stroke of genius. Kai-chi squeezes every ounce of sympathy out of his performance, and it’s hard not to connect deeply with his struggle.

Ten Years ends on a note that mixes a sort of despair with an attempt to strive for a hope for the future. The film has already proven controversial – the Chinese Government has made clear efforts to suppress it – and it’s easy to see why. Ten Years may be a little rough around the edges at times but it’s still essential viewing. A gasp of air and a cry for help from a culture that fears it may be quietly drowning under the weight of a huge body of water.

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