As the lights came back on, a near full-house crowd of viewers departed from the cinema in a silent procession. There was no chatter among the couples. It was a heavy film to stomach for 9:00 am on a sunny Saturday: the only screening of the weekend left where seats were still available, at Tseung Kwan O’s Star Cinema.

Comprising five short films separately written and produced, Ten Years speculates on life in Hong Kong in 2025, and paints a sombre picture of politics and society. CNN’s review highlighted the fourth in the series – Self-Immolator – as the most directly shocking, revolving around the identity of a mystery self-immolator in front of the British Embassy. Set against a backdrop of street demonstrations and tear gas reminiscent of the Umbrella Revolution, the segment also explores the widening differences between peaceful and more “violent” methods of activism.

Another segment, Season of the End, employs a more subtle artistic approach. Filmed entirely within a claustrophobic old apartment in Tai Kok Tsui, it follows a young couple who seek to preserve specimens of leftover debris from home demolitions – obsessively, ad absurdum — until the characters break down mentally.

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Online ticket reservation status for Ten Years at Metroplex Kowloon Bay, February 2 (as of February 1). Photo: Ten Years, via Facebook.

Having initially premiered in mid-December, the film might not have garnered such intense public interest if it were not for a scathing review by Chinese state newspaper Global Times, calling it a “virus of the mind”. In any case, not everyone has managed to see the film. Only a handful of cinemas, such as Metroplex Kowloon Bay and Ma On Shan Classics Cinema, chose to screen it.

A portrayal of Hong Kong’s worst fears

While Global Times and other reviewers have primarily directed their critiques at the likelihood of the film’s events actually taking place, the film cannot be entirely interpreted as a prediction for the year 2025. Ten Years is not a forecast calculated via econometric modelling; it is simply a portrayal of the Hong Kong public’s worst fears.

Perhaps a more pertinent question raised by the film is why people have come to dread – rather than look forward to – the city’s future. The answer is probably because we have been shown no realistic alternative.

Economically, Hong Kong has excluded much of its population through low social mobility and high inequality. To debate principles such as “positive non-intervention” is somewhat obfuscating, as this presupposes that the government makes decisions in the interests of the city’s economy as a whole, rather than defending vested interests or promoting cross-border integration.

Politically, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has adopted a hard-line, conflictual approach against anyone with a dissenting viewpoint, alienating not only pan-democrats and localists but also some from the pro-establishment camp.

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In short, Hong Kong’s leaders appear to have abandoned a significant number of Hong Kong people. How else are they meant to feel, if not pessimistic? Ten Years has only channelled this broad sentiment into a movie, in which predictive accuracy is a secondary concern.

A new start for the film industry?

Nevertheless, from a selection among five dystopian films, producer Ng Ka-leung chose to end Ten Years with Local Eggs, which ultimately depicts Hong Kong’s children with optimism. As a final conclusion, the closing titles “it’s already too late” emerge on the screen, only to be replaced by “it’s not too late”.

Global Times accuses the film of “spreading desperation”, but it contains many other activist messages too. For example, Extras and Self-Immolator – respectively the first and fourth films in the series – portray mainland immigrants, South Asians and elderly characters without treating them as antagonists or resorting to stereotypes. The latter film even features a mixed-race relationship, advocating the idea that Hong Kong identity should be based on civic, not ethnic, factors.

While viewers have flocked to the few remaining cinemas screening Ten Years, some have simultaneously called for a boycott of From Vegas to Macau III, a star-studded production directed by filmmaker Wong Jing. An outspoken pro-Beijing figure, Wong made the headlines in December after calling YouTubers “unsuccessful” for “not earning enough money to buy an apartment”.

Wong has dismissed the impact of the possible boycott, saying that “Hong Kong’s box office size is 1/25th of that of the mainland”. Earlier this week, Stand News reported that pro-establishment district councillors were advertising discounted tickets for From Vegas to Macau III.

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Advertisement for HK$25 discount tickets to see From Vegas to Macau III. Photo: Office of District Councillor Or Chong Shing, via Facebook.

The city’s film industry, long thought to be in decline, may have become the latest battleground between Beijing’s supporters and opponents. Time will tell whether the cinema will become a rallying point for Hong Kong identity, much like football, which has also seen renewed interest after falling from its past glories.

On a final note, according to Box Office Mojo, Ten Years has so far generated box office takings of HK$5,377,915, as of the weekend ending January 31. This figure is almost ten times larger than the film’s budget, a paltry HK$600,000.

With that said, the film’s production model, whereby directors employed a mostly-volunteer cast, may not be replicable over the long-term. Some actors have also voiced concerns over possibly being barred from future mainland Chinese productions. But it is at least clear that there is a market for a film that speaks to Hong Kong’s genuine fears.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.