An elderly woman staggers in front of the British Consulate-General with an umbrella in one hand and a gasoline can in the other. She proceeds to pull out a lighter and ignites herself, a prolonged shot of her burning umbrella is seen before a fade to black. This is the closing scene of “Self-Immolator,” one of five stories featured in the film “Ten Years,” a dystopian collection of five short stories set in a 2025 Hong Kong under Chinese rule.
With five young Hong Kong directors at the helm, the film raises questions about central issues concerning the direction of Hong Kong’s impending future. An underlying theme of the film is a loss of identity felt by many Hong Kong residents and a desire for Hong Kong to secede and become an independent sovereign state. With the mainland’s recent sphere of influence in Hong Kong, one of the film’s five directors Jevons Au, said he feels like a “foreigner” in his own home country.
“The consequence of the government’s policies is that our cultural roots are being removed. Not only by trying to restrict Cantonese but also by trying to erase our history as a British colony,” Au told NBC News.
In 1842, after the First Opium War, China relinquished Hong Kong to Britain. Then in 1898, China leased the New Territories together with 235 islands to Britain for 99 years. Hong Kong was transferred back to the Chinese authorities after more than 150 years of British control in 1997. Hong Kong Basic Law dictates that Hong Kong will co-exist with China under the policy of “one country, two systems” for half a century following the 1997 transfer. This entitles Hong Kong to develop its democracy within its own domain of autonomy that gives it possession of executive, legislative, judicial power as well as authority to maintain social-cultural and financial frameworks. Some Hong Kongers fear mainland influence will eventually engulf Hong Kong’s distinctive culture.
“With the new policies coming out, we really have to put an effort to preserve our identity right now or we will lose it in the future,” Au said.
“Ten Years” is currently screening as part of the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) lineup. Although the film won the Best Film Award at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards, the film was received bitterly by the Chinese government, according to the New York Times. Mainland Chinese authorities condemned the film and censored any publication that gave it a favorable reception, the paper reported. At the Yau Ma Tei cinema, the first theater where the film was screened, the film grossed more ticket sales than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," according to the Agence France-Presse. When the film was pulled from theaters, a group of community organizations arranged for the film to be simultaneously screened at 34 different public locations in Hong Kong with thousands in attendance, according to the South China Morning Post.
In spite of the film’s commercial success, production of the film encountered a few roadblocks. With a small budget, the film had to rely on various volunteers. Director Chow Kwun-wai recalled an incident in which one of his actors wanted to pull out of the film for fear of the Chinese government’s response to the film.
“The current political climate is inciting fear among the creative community from even touching any project that is politics related. That’s very tragic. You cannot be free anymore,” Kwun-wai told NBC News.
The most sensitive storyline in the film is “Self-Immolator” which explores the idea of making a spiritual sacrifice for your home. The story parallels a history of self-immolation by Tibetans many of whom were monks and nuns in order to protest Chinese domination of Tibet within the context of Hong Kong independence, the directors said. The story is also a nod to the Umbrella Movement, a democratic political movement created during the Hong Kong protests of 2014 which shaped part of the film’s production.
Director and Producer Ng Ka-leung hopes that the film’s success provides a lesson for future directors back home.
“We want people making films to be honest to themselves, not just looking at the market to make money. We should be making films that talk about something meaningful,” Ka-leung said.