Christopher Niem sat down with Andrew Choi, executive producer of sleeper hit Ten Years, to discuss his upcoming projects and the legacy of the film in Hong Kong.
CN: How did the Ten Years International project start?
AC: We managed to screen Ten Years at various international film festivals; actually we went to over 30 different ones. We were struck by how audiences resonated with the film, especially since Hong Kong had been in the news because of the Umbrella Movement.
In addition to this, the themes of political autonomy, social tensions and human values were ones which people could relate to, especially when reflecting on where their own society might be in ten years.
We had a lot of feedback regarding this, including an old Japanese man during a Q&A session in Osaka last year. He said that after watching our film, he wondered whether the Japanese military might exert a bigger role in Japanese society in ten years.
A common question asked of me and Ng Ka-leung, who is also an executive producer on our new project, is whether we’re going to make a sequel. Our answer is always no.
However, during a film festival in Italy, a Japanese producer approached us with an idea for a similar omnibus project in Japan. This was over a year ago, and since then we’ve been working hard to find local producers and directors. Felix Tsang of Golden Scene, who’s also on the production team, has travelled a lot to achieve this goal.
We wanted to pick south-east Asian countries which were similar to Hong Kong. The countries that we landed on, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea, all have cultures which influence Hong Kong to some degree. Also, in the globalised world we live in, our futures are intertwined with that of China, so we share that also. The project in South Korea has stalled at the moment, as we haven’t found a local production partner. We’re still open to pursuing it should circumstances change though.
CN: Did you experience any problems with self-censorship during this process, as your partners may have been wary of collaborating on a project which was perceived to be anti-China?
AC: The first country we started in was Taiwan. We actually met a lot of directors there, and most expressed an interested in joining, though a few had concerns. Naturally, since some of them also wanted to make films in China, they were concerned with being associated with us, and there are actually quite a few co-productions between Taiwanese and Chinese filmmakers now. However, we found five directors with no problems in the end.
We had similar issues with a local investor in Taiwan, who was interested in funding our film. However, since they also had business investments in China, they didn’t end up putting money into the project. We felt it was a bit of a shame, since none of the five stories in the Taiwan version are of a political nature.
CN: Can you expand on the vision for the ten years international projects?
AC: One point we have continually stressed is that Ten Years was not meant to be anti-China nor political in nature. Our vision was always to make five local stories which envision the future of our city, but because the stories were conceived after the Umbrella movement, some of them were political in nature. That’s our hope for the international versions as well, that they will be visions of the future that local audiences can relate to.
Me and Ka-leung don’t know the other countries as well as we know Hong Kong, and we wanted to carry on the spirit of giving creative licence to the individual directors. This is why we are grateful to our local producers, who were able to find directors who were the right fit for the project.
The stories from the new films do differ from Ten Years, which we are fine with. For example, in the Thailand project, the directors were quite concerned about the political situation, so more of the films are about the future impact of politics. This isn’t the case in other projects.
CN: How has Ten Years influenced the conversation around Hong Kong’s future?
I feel that we have influenced the conversation through our community screenings. When Ten Years was pulled from the cinemas, we started to organise these, and there’s been over 200 of them. We also made sure that there was at least one director or producer present, so that there could be a Q&A session afterwards. I’ve personally attended almost all of the screenings, and I’ve been fascinated by the diversity of opinions expressed.
You can see the split in society through our audience. The younger members are in general more supportive of the film, whereas elder audiences have more negative comments. We’ve had Mainland Chinese students come to raise objections, but also Chinese viewers who’ve thanked us for making the film.
One piece of feedback that we got consistently was that it was a timely release, around a year after the Umbrella Movement. Some of the people we talked to said that they couldn’t bear to watch the news anymore, but after watching Ten Years, they were inspired to engage with societal issues. For some of the directors, the making of the films was cathartic, in the aftermath of such turmoil in our city.
We also screened the film in a lot of local churches, to mixed responses. Some churches were glad for a chance to engage in local matters, but others were unhappy that a “political” film was being shown.
CN: After the success of Ten Years and Mad World, is there an appetite for independent films in Hong Kong?
AC: I do hope that there is a trend of successful independent films in Hong Kong. I believe that there is a need for local Hong Kong films, rather than just co-production ones with China. There are lots of young, talented directors locally, but many of them lack the right opportunity.
I would love to see more local films, but I do see that the market is difficult. Not every film can be Mad World. But I hope that others in the industry can take inspiration from our example.
I hope that more Hong Kong directors can get themselves to international film festivals, because they would be inspired by the talented independent directors out there who are also making a living. We’re grateful to Golden Scene, who do try and support local independent films.
The sad thing is that when films are made on a small budget, often the directors will pay themselves last, if at all. That’s why we’ve made an effort to pay the directors fairly for the Ten Years International projects.
CN: Ten Years ends with the phrase it’s already too late fading out into it’s not too late. Two years later, is this a sentiment you still agree with?
AC: In the two years since the film has been made, the environment in Hong Kong has definitely got worse. People told young people to get off the streets and run for office, which they did and then got kicked out of office. If you look at Xi Jingping’s recent comments about Hong Kong, you can see that things will get worse before they get better.
However, we shouldn’t lose hope, and I still believe that it’s not too late. I always recall this conversation I had with a Chinese director who lives in Hong Kong. He lamented that on the mainland, you have limited space to create art due to the lack of free speech. He told me to treasure what we have in Hong Kong. Even though in the eyes of many, one country two systems is either dying or dead, we should treasure and fight for the right to speak up.
Losing hope is the last thing I want to see, as no one knows who will win the battle in the end. Look at how we managed to screen the film after it got pulled from cinemas, I hope that this can be an example of what hope can bring.
CN: You end the film with a quote from scripture, “It is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live”. How does your faith influence your art.
AC: We chose this piece of scripture for the relevance to the current situation in Hong Kong. In 750 BCE, the Israelites were still in a time of strife, but eventually God redeemed them. It’s my hope that Hong Kong people will draw hope from this parallel.
Out of the five original directors, only two are Christians. It wasn’t my intention to make a Christian film. However, when I speak of hope, it’s not only hope for Hong Kong, but also eternal hope.
CN: Can you talk about your upcoming film, which has received funding from the Hong Kong Film Development Council?
AC: I’m producing the film, which is being directed by Chow Kwun-wai, who was also a director on Ten Years. We were really happy to receive funding from the council, because it’s quite competitive. We applied despite not thinking that we would receive it, due to our background with Ten Years.
The film, Forget Me Knot, has nothing to do with politics, it’s a love story with a mental health plotline, and we’re still in the process of financing it.
At the end of the day, I see myself as a filmmaker, and not a politician. I have no other agenda apart from making good films, and I hope that I can continue to produce pure Hong Kong stories.