A scene form Chow Kwun-wai's "Immolation" in Ten Years (The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

A scene form Chow Kwun-wai’s “Immolation” in Ten Years (Andy Wong/The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

This past year, Hong Kong garnered more attention for filmmaking than it has in years. The main reason was Ten Years, a low-budget anthology picture that achieved both critical and commercial success, despite a lack of special effects or marquee actors. But what the film, which screened earlier this month at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), does boast is passion and purpose. Its five segments are helmed by five different directors, each charged with creating a vision of what Hong Kong will be like in a decade’s time, taking into account China’s growing influence on the city.

As is the case with most movie anthologies, the quality of the individual segments varies, though three of the five rate between very good to masterful, beginning noticeably with the third segment, Jevons Au’s “Dialect.” It takes place in a recognizable urban landscape, albeit one in which Mandarin—the official language of mainland China—is fast pushing out Cantonese, which has long been the more widely spoken tongue in Hong Kong. The main character, a middle-aged cab driver, only speaks the latter, and therefore he finds his livelihood threatened by the new, Mandarin-only rules for taxis. As he makes one stop after another, succeeding or failing to pick up fares, it becomes clear that the law’s effects extend beyond the older, working-class population.

In addition, the cabbie has a young son. Since Mandarin is the only language taught in public schools, they are increasingly unable to understand each other. On the way to an uncertain fate, the film throws in some nicely absurd touches, such as a Caucasian passenger who turns out to speak Mandarin better than the cabbie. Overall,”Dialect” effectively conveys the anxieties of becoming a second-class citizen in one’s home country.

“Self-Immolator,” by Chow Kwun-wai, is the fourth and most ambitious of the shorts. It cuts back and forth between multiple storylines: a faux-documentary investigating charred human remains, determined to be the results of a political protest-by-suicide; the police investigation into the incident; and flashbacks to local student activists, who are turning ever more desperate in the face of a repressive regime. The fake documentary provides historical background on Hong Kong (a British colony beginning in the 1840s, until it was handed back to China in 1997), intertwined with talking heads calling for self-rule over assimilation by China.

Watching “Self-Immolator,” I could sense exactly where Ten Years ran afoul of the Chinese government, which rebuked the film as a “virus of the mind” following its release in 2015 and went so far as to block the broadcast of this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards (where Ten Years took home the Best Picture prize). The most politically-charged of the segments, it accuses China of breaching the “one country, two systems” philosophy granting the city considerable autonomy, and perhaps even more impressively, it reframes the titular protest-as-suicide as an act of selflessness and courage.

Ng Ka-leung’s finale, “Local Egg,” is a slice-of-life drama about Sam, the owner of a small grocery, who deals in eggs from the dwindling number of chicken farms in Hong Kong. He is regularly beset upon by the Youth Guard, a roving gang of kids who patrol the streets, looking for merchants to report to the government for various offenses. At one point, Sam nearly runs afoul of them for using the word “local” in the signage of his eggs (the word “localist” being associated with Hong Kong’s recent pro-democracy movement). Meanwhile, his son, Ming, has become a member of the same fascist gang, and the father shows increasing concern that Ming is engaging in secret activities sanctioned by the government-run public school.

This segment’s strengths include a strong performance by Hui Yuk-ming as the boy, an uncarved block pulled in opposite directions by two figurative parents. His actual parent, Sam, tells Ming not to follow authority blindly but to make his own decisions about right and wrong. Easier said than done, however, given the power his state-parent wields. The conclusion offers no easy answers, though there is a ray of hope.

While not quite so praiseworthy, the other two segments are not without their charms. “Extras” is a social parable disguised as a hip crime caper about natives and migrants struggling for the same terrible jobs out at the margins, but it takes a little too much time to get going. The dreamlike “Season of the End” follows the death of a relationship amidst crumbling, dilapidated spaces that look like Hell. Unfortunately, it has elements of Asian horror that feel like they belong in a different anthology altogether.

As previously mentioned, Ten Years ran afoul of the Chinese government during its theatrical run, and so despite strong box office, it disappeared rather abruptly—something the filmmakers have attributed to theater owners self-policing themselves. Though out of sight temporarily, it eventually found a second life through community screenings. (Photographs from a number of well-attended ones were shown via slideshow at NYAFF). The film clearly struck a chord with Hong Kong audiences, despite ostensibly being a fiction. Indeed, according to the directors, many of the troubles depicted in the film are already happening in real life.

Presently, Ten Years is making the festival rounds, which hopefully means more people will get to see it. This is an important film reflecting the angst and fears of a society undergoing dramatic changes. Five of its artists behind the camera, as well as countless actors, faced an uphill battle to be heard; they should not be silenced.