Thursday, February 27, 2020

To Hong Kong with Love: Ten Years

In Hong Kong, the future may already be here, five years ahead of schedule. Tragically, it is a future of eroding freedoms and intrusive police state tactics envisioned by the filmmakers speculating on what HK life might be like in a decade’s time. Their 2015 anthology film won best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, despite the condemnation of the Mainland state media. The eerie prescience of Ten Years is undeniable when it screens as part of the Metrograph’s film series, To Hong Kong with Love.

Kwok Zune’s “Extras” is certainly stylish and maybe not as paranoid as it might have seemed five years ago, but the ironic kicker remains obvious right from the start. Two low level triads have been recruited to stage a phony assassination attempt to drum up public support for a draconian “public security” proposal. From the vantage point of 2020, the parallels with the extradition bill are almost spooky. Mike Mak’s stark black-and-white cinematography well serves the darkly cynical morality tale, but it does not land with the same emotional force as some of the later stories.

By far, the weakest constituent film is Wong Fei-pang’s “Season of the End,” in which a duo of cultural anthropologists collect specimens from razed working class neighborhoods in a rather absurdist, Beckett-ish fashion. It is far too reserved and mannered to make any appreciable impact with general audiences.

Fortunately, Jevons Au’s “├Éialect” represents a dramatic improvement. Screenwriters Chung Chui-yi, Ho Fung-lun, and Lulu Yang tell the deceptively simple but heartfelt story of a Cantonese-speaking cab-driver facing the potential loss of his livelihood, because of legal mandates requiring Mandarin fluency. Leung Kin-ping’s terrific performance as the driver is subtle and dignified, but still quite poignant. It is a quiet human story, but it also has direct relevancy for Hong Kong’s Localist movement.

“Dialect” alone would be enough to justify recommending Ten Years, but the courageousness of director-screenwriter Chow Kwuh-wai’s “Self-Immolator” demands to be seen to be believed (and marveled at). Unfolding in pseudo-documentary-style, the POV camera crew tries to undercover the identity of a protestor who indeed self-immolated, apparently in response to the death in prison of hunger-striking independence activist Au-yeung Kin-fung.

Chow explicitly refers to the notorious Falun Gong self-immolations as most likely propaganda operations faked by the CCP and its secret police, while consciously echoing Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Communist Czechoslovakia. It is an amazingly bold work of cinema, but it is also an enormously gripping and suspenseful short film.

Yet, Ten Years still manages to save the best for last. Screenwriter-director Ng Ka-leung’s “Local Egg” could be considered the film’s equivalent of To Kill a Mockingbird. Sam, the proprietor of a neighborhood grocery, is about to lose his long-time supplier of locally produced eggs because of government harassment. He is sad to see them go, because he has done business with the family for years and his customers prefer locally-sourced food. Unfortunately, the very use of the word “local” causes him grief with the junior snitch squad, which his son Ming belongs to.

Even though it comes in an anthology film, Liu Kai-chi’s performance as Sam really is exceptional. His portrait of the shopkeeper is truly akin to Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. Yet, perhaps the best aspect of “Local Egg” is the way Ng and Liu manage to find an affirming note to end it on.

Ten Years very clearly asks whether there is still time to save Hong Kong’s future and very way of life. “Local Egg” hopes there is, but “Self-Immolator” suggests otherwise. So much of those two films (and “Dialect”) have already come to pass, it is hard to consider Ten Years “speculative” anymore. Regardless, it still contains some powerful drama and potent protest. Very highly recommended, Ten Years screens this Saturday afternoon (2/29) at the Metrograph.