Interview with Ng Ka-leung [Five Flavours 2016]
When you search for Ng Ka-leung on IMDb, what you get is a single credit for his film Ten Years which was the Hong Kong sleeper hit of 2015. Now, IMDb does not always provide the most accurate records, but the filmmaker himself has admitted that, despite having graduated from Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University with a design degree in 2003, he had been working mainly in the post-production commercial and film sector up until the year he conceived Ten Years.
Now, if you are an East Asian cinema fan or scholar (or both) and haven’t seen or heard of the film Ten Years (not to be mistaken for the 2011 film in which Channing Tatum struts his dimples at a high school reunion), then you’ve probably been sleeping and I’m jealous because it’s been a pretty tumultuous year in the world in general. Ten Years is a film project based around the concept of Hong Kong society envisioned in the not-too-distant future year of 2025. Having been conceived by Ng Ka-leung in 2014, on the eve of the student led pro-democracy umbrella movement, it projects the fears for Hong Kong citizens of a future that is entangled in the strong nationalist arm of Mainland China.
Ten Years is an omnibus of short films, a collaboration of local Hong Kong filmmakers whom Ng Ka-Leung selected to be part of this project. I sat down with the creator at the 2016 Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland to discuss the astonishing success of a small budget film which sold out in nearly every screening in Hong Kong cinemas and went on to receive the Best Film prize at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
Ten Years is a film project that is comprised of five short films, one of which you direct called Local Egg [the other four are directed by Jevons Au, Chow Kwun-wai, Wong Fei-pang, Kwok Zune]. You conceived this project. How did you get other directors and actors involved in it?
Initially it started in 2014. That year, I had a feeling that Hong Kong was becoming worse so I thought because I am a filmmaker and producer that I would like to use the media or some stories to express this feeling. So, I wanted to ask, ‘What changes will be happening in Hong Kong?’ I used this question to ask many people. Their backgrounds were very different. Some teachers, students, some businessmen.
I wanted to ask three questions. First, is there anything that has happened lately that has affected or inspired change in their lives? Also, I asked if there were difficulties they were facing at that moment. And the last question I wanted to ask is what they imagine their lives to be like ten years from now. I found that every person was interested in the future. It sparked something in their eyes and talking about the future sparked an interest in the power to change. So, I picked up these questions to start this project Ten Years and used this idea to find directors.
The first filmmaker who I found was Jevons Au who made Dialect. He suggested that I find more directors. This was a small budget film, not a commercial film and made for around $65,000 (U.S.). It is very independent. I located directors who would want to make a short film that reflects marginalised people in society. So, I pitched this idea to the directors to see who would like to join. At first nobody expected this film go worldwide. At the beginning, I talked to the directors and said, if we can have five screenings that would be good [laughs]. There was no expectations. I wanted them to imagine their own future, to have total freedom, total control.
So you gave the directors complete creative license to imagine Hong Kong in ten years?
Yes. Actually, in the end the films were quite dark but in the beginning, I didn’t tell them they needed to be dark. But you know in September 2014 when I put this film together there was the umbrella movement that happened. Of course, that period was dark so this impacted on the writing process. I think we project this emotion into the short films.
In recent years, there has been a global rise in citizen movements alongside an awareness of a real threat to freedom of speech. For instance, in Hong Kong alone, there was the student-led umbrella movement as you have mentioned followed by the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers who are presumably being detained by Mainland Chinese authorities. Now that two years have passed since the production of Ten Years, what do you think about the general atmosphere in Hong Kong?
I think that after the film was screened in 2015, for me I can say that the Hong Kong atmosphere has gotten worse. Actually though, when it comes to the function of Ten Years, I wanted to imagine a long term change. I think many people after watching the film say they felt very sad but maybe the purpose is to make them question, if the future is that dark or if we can’t predict the future, what decision can we make today, what decision do we make day to day in our personal life. So, it is quite a lot of change in people’s heart. I think the Hong Kong society and atmosphere cannot change in ten years. But I think quite a lot of people are trying their best.
I think your film speaks to the disenfranchised and offers a platform for people to voice their concerns about the future.
Yes, and at the end of the film, I leave them with the question, ‘is it too late or not too late?’ Of course, this project is dark and not calm but I think it is never too late. If we look back in history we can see that it repeats itself. So, I think the film also addresses the question of hope. If there is hope or hope for change, maybe it will be later than ten years from now. But that’s okay. We just need to have the vision of hope, not just short term. Long term. So, I hope this film can offer a historical vision of hope.
In your film Local Egg, you address the question of Hong Kong in ten years by re-enacting the past, more specifically the youth mobilised Red Guard Movement from 1966 in Mainland China. So can you tell me about your process for this short film treatment?
Yes. I address the question of how totalitarianism is repeated in history, with the government’s brainwashing of children. So, I repeat the history of the Red Guard event but the concept of the power has not changed. On the surface, the method of power has changed but for instance in 2012, the policy of education has changed in Hong Kong. For example, curriculum reform in education is being encouraged to be more nationalistic. Okay this is abstract but it is also disturbing because teachers may begin to follow these new guidelines which leads to self-censoring the actual facts concerning Hong Kong identity and its relationship with Mainland China. I think this concept is quite evil.
We need to put it on the table that politics don’t just belong to the adult world. It is also happening with the children. So, I kept it in the story as a main element. And if we don’t like the Red Guard history, then we need to ask everyone, both pro-democracy people and those people who love China and the government, ‘if that kind of history would repeat in Hong Kong, what do you think?’ For instance, the story I created was very normal, the everyday life but when the children are making the black list it is crazy.
I wanted to remind people, if we don’t want this kind of thing to happen in the future, we need to think about what we need to do ourselves. What the government and society sets up as the rule, the children will follow.
Ten Years was produced on a very small budget and became a surprise hit in Hong Kong. Then, when it won the Best Film prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards, the show was not broadcast on CCTV in Mainland China for the first time. What do you think about the effectiveness of banning or censoring Ten Years in Mainland China?
I would say that Ten Years, the film has little power so I think it is illogical. I can’t understand. I just wonder how the film would have done without the high-profile banning. It was quite interesting that many people became curious about this film.
Yes. Certainly this is counter-intuitive to the government’s goal to suppress it.
Yes. Suddenly, in one night, everyone was downloading it and it was at the top of the download list. Everyone wanted to know what happened and what is this Ten Years?! Actually, in the film the banning of material, that thing about a totalitarian country—it is quite normal to be illogical. So, maybe many people self-censored Ten Years. Still, I wondered why China Global Times wrote about it in their paper and made many people aware. Its counter-promotion. For me it was good! [Laughs]
In Local Egg, Taiwan seems to provide a haven for marginalised Hong Kong residents. Since Ten Years is set in a dystopian near-present historical moment, do you believe this to actually be true or are you attempting to carve a fictional pathway to hope for the disenfranchised within your story?
In Taiwan and elsewhere there is an issue with farming. Hong Kong and Taiwan are similar and are close together geographically. They also both relate to Mainland China. I think a lot of Hong Kong youngsters really like the culture of Taiwan– the coffee shops, the food, less stressful atmosphere. So I focused on three generations: the egg seller, the farmer and the youngsters. I showed two choices for the youngsters: one is to go underground in Hong Kong and the other option is to go to Taiwan. For me, I wanted to respect both choices for youngsters in the future.
So, despite the dystopian situation in Local Egg, the characters also have agency.
Yes. I wanted to address the concept of inner choice, to show that each character has an inner choice even when it is difficult.
This project feels like the start of its own citizen’s movement. Do you have plans for a sequel to Ten Years?
Yes. We have just started a Taiwan version. We have found five different young Taiwanese directors. They come from different backgrounds. We want to create what they imagine for themselves for Taiwan in ten years. So, they create what they want with this concept. I am the producer for the project and we found a local Taiwan producer to help. Hopefully, the film will be completed later next year.
Every time Ten Years is screened in a different country or city with different people, people who may not be so familiar with the Hong Kong situation, the film is sparked by an interest in their own country or city’s future. We are done with the project in Hong Kong but I think this concept can be good if we can generate this question and imagine it through film elsewhere around the world.
Ten Years was shown on November 20 and 22 at the Five Flavours Film Festival.