19 March 2019
Executive producer Andrew Choi accepts the award for Ten Years as Best Movie. The film has triggered a backlash from Chinese censors because of its politically charged theme. Photo: Reuters
Executive producer Andrew Choi accepts the award for Ten Years as Best Movie. The film has triggered a backlash from Chinese censors because of its politically charged theme. Photo: Reuters

Why Ten Years is perfect timing no thanks to China

Chinese moviegoers have no idea which movie topped the Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday night.

Not that they could care less but even if they did, they would not know that Ten Years, a dark foretelling of Hong Kong’s not-too-distant future, was the judges’ pick for best movie.

Chinese censors scrubbed all news about the awards ceremony and the compliant state media was only too happy to oblige.

Ten Years is banned in China, so you’d be hard-pressed to find anything remotely related to it in the Chinese press.

Not content with the news blackout, Beijing’s censors tried their best to pressure the Hong Kong Film Award (HKFA) board into freezing the movie out of this year’s ceremony.

Chairman Derek Yee can tell you how much pressure he had faced since Ten Years was nominated for the award in January.  

“Someone told me we have to avoid mentioning the words ‘ten’ and ‘years’ due to their sensitivity,” Yee said at the awards presentation.

Then he quoted US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and defiantly announced the winner.

Thanks to a voting panel of more than 100 industry professionals, politics lost out to the creative process — make that freedom of expression.

A small-budget movie about Hong Kong with a predictable but gutsy theme showed up the powerful mandarins in Beijing.

But trust their Hong Kong allies to find a way to disparage it.

Hong Kong Tourism Board chairman Peter Lam, a movie investor, said the win was “unfortunate” because Ten Years flunked at the box office and was not nominated for any other category.

It was a “joke”, said Pegasus Motion Pictures boss Wong Pak-ming, adding any film with a political theme can win an award in Hong Kong.

And former HKFA chairman Crucindo Hung belittled its production values, saying a low-budget film like Ten Years could not possibly win Best Movie.

By contrast, young Hong Kong filmmakers gave the movie a lusty clap and a standing ovation.

That said, the jury is still out on what impact the award might have on ordinary moviegoers who have not exactly embraced it, judging by its showing at the box office.

Ten Years had a short general release and some cinemas refused to screen it.

In the run-up to its debut, state newspaper Global Times called it “totally absurd” and a “virus of the mind”. 

The withering attack is not so much about the movie itself but what it represents to the business of filmmaking.

Increasingly, Hong Kong movies are joint productions with mainland interests, more than the other way around.

The underlying unease over a production that angers the central government is exacerbating fears Beijing might pull the plug on these joint ventures.

Industry veterans, ever conscious of spiralling costs, are leading the pushback against politically charged productions.

But as Ten Years shows, you don’t need a mainland backer to make an award-winning movie if you can work within your budget.

And we can all thank heaven we are in Hong Kong where freedom of thought and expression was alive last time I checked.

The movie painfully depicts an inconvenient truth — that some day soon, our freedoms will be history.

There’s nothing about it we don’t already know, which is perhaps why moviegoers have not been dying of suspense.

But remarkably, Ten Years is excellently timed.

Pick a time in recent months or years that the movie is not spot-on about China’s increased tinkering with Hong Kong — from the reinterpretation of “one country, two systems”, the attempts to introduce patriotic education and a national security law, the crackdown on pro-democracy activists, the failed election reform bill, police overreach in the hunt for dissidents, tighter grip on the local media, etc.

Give up?  

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EJ Insight writer

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