Coming-of-age documentary To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self won best film at the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday.

To My Nineteen Year Old Self wins
To My Nineteen Year Old Self wins best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday. Photo: Hong Kong Film Awards.

Screenings of the controversial movie were axed earlier this year amid an ethics row.

The film, directed by Mabel Cheung, follows six local secondary school students growing up in a turbulent Hong Kong over a decade. However, the schoolgirls from Ying Wa Girls’ School complained that their privacy was infringed, prompting Cheung to issue an apology.

Amid the controversy, highlights from the film were not shown at Sunday’s ceremony, though clips from other nominees were.

The documentary was previously 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.

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But in February, less than four days after it became widely available in Hong Kong, Cheung announced that public screenings would be halted. One of the girls she filmed – Ah Ling – 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. She added that she was worried about her privacy, and had been “in fear” since first seeing the final cut of the documentary during the premiere.

Winners of the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards in full – click to view.
  • Best Film: To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self
  • Best Actor: Sean Lau Ching-wan for Detective vs Sleuths
  • Best Actress: Sammi Cheng Sau-man for Lost Love
  • Best Director: Wai Ka-fai for Detectives vs Sleuths
  • Best Original Film Song: Sammi Cheng Sau-man for Lost Love
  • Best Original Film Score: Wong Hin-yan for The Narrow Road
  • Lifetime Achievement: Bowie Wu Fung
  • Best Supporting Actress: Ivana Wong Yuen-chi for Table For Six
  • Best Visual Effects: Leung Wai-kit, Kwok Tai, Chas Chau Chi-Shing, May Law for Warriors of Future
  • Best Asian Chinese Language Film: In Search of Lost Time
  • Best Supporting Actor: Michael Hui Koon-man for Where the Wind Blows
  • Best Sound Design: Nopawat Likitwong, Sarunyu Nurnsai, Dhanarat Dhitirojana and Stan Yau for Warriors of Future
  • Best Action Choreography: Jack Wong Wai-leung for Warriors of Future
  • Best Screenplay: Wai Ka-fai, Ryker Chan, Mak Tin-shu for Detective vs Sleuths
  • Best Cinematography: Cheng Siu-keung for Detective vs Sleuths
  • Best Art Direction: Andrew Wong and Bill Lui for Detective vs Sleuths
  • Best Film Editing: Jojo Shek, J Him Lee, Zhang Zhao for The Sparring Partner
  • Best Costume and Makeup: Dora Ng Lei-Lo and Petra Kwok Suk-man for Where the Wind Blows
  • Best New Director: Ho Cheuk-tin for The Sparring Partner
  • Best New Performer: Sahal Zaman for The Sunny Side of the Street

At Sunday’s event at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, co-director of the film – William Kwok – read out a speech by his colleague, Cheung.

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Cheung said the documentary provided her with a “small garden for beautiful plants” following her husband’s death, but the controversy “threw her into a dark forest” and she “realised the impermanence of life.”

“However, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s last words – ‘art is long, life is short’ – gave me a lot of inspiration. Thank you to people who encouraged me and supported me during this time, thanks to the industry for its recognition to this film – that I can see the light gradually in the dark. It made me understand that even when life is in a trough, it means that the only possible way forward is up.”

Kwok also delivered his own advice for local filmmakers: “Lastly, I want to say, to all directors filming documentaries in Hong Kong, please keep putting effort into shooting documentaries – don’t be afraid, because documentaries are needed. Use the lens to record what is happening, remember to keep rolling, keep going, don’t be afraid – shoot first, edit first, and release [the films] first.”

School apology

In a statement published shortly after the documentary won, Ying Wa Girls’ School apologised for not sending a representative to the ceremony, as the school had sought to pull the film from the awards in February.

To My Nineteen-year-old Self
A post announcing a public screening of “To My Nineteen-year-old Self.” Photo: To My Nineteen-year-old Self, via Facebook

The statement thanked director Cheung, producer Eunice Wong, the production team, as well as six students who took part in the documentary: “The school would like to reiterate that, during the course of shooting [the documentary], the team filmed on the principle of consent and knowledge of those filmed. [The team] never intended to force film shoots or to shoot in secret, and we allowed students to quit during the filming process.”

Michelle Yeoh on red carpet

Malaysian Oscar-winning actress Michelle Yeoh was among the presenters, handing the Best New Performer award to 10-year-old Sahal Zaman for The Sunny Side of the Street.

Michelle yeoh
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh arrives on the red carpet for the 41st Hong Kong Film awards in Hong Kong on April 16, 2023. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP.

“I feel that I’m a suitable presenter for this award. The first nomination I’ve ever got, was Best New Performer for ‘Yes, Madam’ in 1986,” Yeoh said.

“As long as we fight and work hard with perseverance, and never give up, dreams do come true.”

Additional reporting: Candice Chau.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.