Public screenings of the award-winning documentary To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self by acclaimed Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung have been halted after one of the film’s subjects complained that it was playing in cinemas without her permission.

To My Nineteen-year-old Self
Post announcing the public screening of “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self.” Photo: To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self, via Facebook

The movie, which was commissioned by prestigious secondary school Ying Wa Girls’ School, documents the life of six students over the course of 10 years, from their admission in 2011. It was screened with limited availability from October 12, and received citywide release last Thursday.

The documentary has been screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival and other film festivals in the Czech Republic and the UK. It was also awarded the best movie of 2022 by Hong Kong Film Critics Society.

But on Sunday, less than four days after it became widely available in Hong Kong, Cheung announced that public screenings would be halted from Monday, apologising to her subjects, other students, the school, and her crew.

The director’s move came after one of the girls she filmed said she had “opposed [the film] being screened in public in any form from the very beginning” in a letter published by Ming Pao Weekly on Saturday.

‘Opposed from the very beginning’

The girl, who gave her name as Ah Ling in the documentary, said the students who appeared in the movie had only been told in June 2021 that it would be screened publicly, six months ahead of its in-school premiere.

Ah Ling said she was worried about the disclosure of her privacy, and had been “in fear” since first seeing the final cut of the documentary during the premiere. She said she had been told by a psychiatrist provided by the school that screening the movie publicly would have a negative impact on her mental well-being.

Although Ah Ling said the six girls featured in the film had been asked to sign a consent form before the documentary was shown at film festivals or private screenings, she said she had never signed it.

Another of the documentary’s subjects, Katie Kong, said in an Instagram story on Monday that she had signed the consent after the film crew told her “everyone else” had done so. “They never told me the entire story,” Kong added.

Ah Ling Ming Pao Weekly
Ah Ling’s letter was run by Ming Pao Weekly on February 4. Photo: Ming Pao Weekly, via screenshot.

According to Ah Ling’s letter in Ming Pao, her parents had signed a consent form for the documentary project in 2012 giving permission for the school to publish, screen, broadcast, publicly exhibit or distribute the documentary in question or any related products.

Despite asking the director to remove her scenes from the film, Ah Ling said Cheung had refused to do so because the final cut had already been approved by the city’s Film Censorship Authority.

“The school, the director, and the producer said they had asked for legal opinions, if I were to continue stopping them, I might have to bear legal responsibilities,” Ah Ling wrote.

‘Discrepancies’ in understanding

Meeting the press on Sunday evening, Cheung said it was her suggestion to pull the movie from cinemas and she would bear responsibility for any misunderstanding or wrongdoings.

She told reporters she was “quite surprised” by Ah Ling’s letter. “If she really still thinks this way, then everyone should sit down and discuss our discrepancies,” Cheung said.

Mabel Cheung
Mabel Cheung meets the press on February 5 over the controversies surrounding her documentary “To My Nineteen-year-old Self” Photo: RTHK, via Facebook screenshot.

Cheung said the consent signed by the girls’ parents before shooting covered public screenings. “It was to protect all parties, including the school, the film crew and the students,” she added.

The director said she had told the girls at their fifth or sixth year of studying that a film distributor was interested in the documentary. While one of the participants refused and left the project, Ah Ling was among the six who remained.

“At that time, we took it as Ah Ling and others were the last remaining group. We thought she didn’t mind. She also tried to persuade [the girl who left] to continue filming. In other words, she thought screening in cinemas was not a problem,” Cheung said.

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When asked if the controversy would affect her image and her work as a member of the newly-formed government task force aiming at promoting Hong Kong, the director said her personal image “carries no importance on this matter.”

“I wasn’t trying to tell a good story of Hong Kong. I only wanted to do something for the film sector,” Cheung said.

Ruth Shek Yuk-yu, the former headteacher of Ying Wa Girls’ School who was involved in the film, also said on Sunday she was “deeply apologetic.”

“As the initiator of the documentary project, I cannot shirk my responsibility in face of challenges and controversies,” Shek wrote in a message to the school’s alumni.

Star athlete’s unnotified appearance

Hong Kong professional cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze also wrote on her Instagram account on Sunday that Cheung had used footage of an interview Lee gave in the documentary without prior notice.

Cheung told Commercial Radio on Monday that the interview was arranged by Lee’s team captain at the time. “We told [the team captain] that we were filming a school documentary,” she said.

On the same radio programme, Cheung said she would try to reach out to Ah Ling, but if Ah Ling remained unwilling for the movie to be screened in public, it would not be shown again.

The director added that she hoped to call Sarah Lee to apologise if Lee had not been notified of her appearance in the documentary.

In a statement released on Monday evening, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) said it was “concerned about the incident.”

To protect the personal data privacy of the students in the film, the PCPD added that it had “taken the initiative to contact the school concerned to ascertain the details of the incident.”

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.