Director Kiwi Chow, executive producer Andrew Choi and fellow directors Jevons Au and Ng Ka-leung of Hong Kong movie Ten Years pose in Hong Kong [Bobby Yip/Reuters]
Like now but more so. That’s the tough forecast for Hong Kong in 2025 set out in Ten Years, a new piece of dystopian cinema that has irked the Chinese Communist Party.
Pro-democracy protesters set themselves on fire outside the British consulate; Triad gangsters collude with mainland officials in staging a mock assassination; Cantonese becomes a backwards patois frowned upon in education and business. Its five tales briskly setting out the stall for how the semi-autonomous zone is anything but, it’s not surprising that Ten Years, filmed for just $77,000, disappeared with suspicious haste from the three Hong Kong cinemas where it was apparently doing a roaring trade earlier this year.
Ten Years qualifies more as speculative fiction, trading in airy predictions, than true science-fiction. “It is not a future we want to see – it is an undesirable future,” explains director and producer Ng Ka-leung. “It is five young filmmakers, asking ourselves: ‘What choices will be made, and how do we live in a foreseeable future of impending doom?'”
But freelance soothsaying is problematic in communist China; after winning the top prize at this year’s Hong Kong film awards, the broadcast of which was subsequently banned, Ten Years’ edgy prognostications are rapidly becoming incorporated into the underground history of Chinese sci-fi.
The genre was slow to develop in the country, probably because of its arrested industrialisation compared with the West. Once China became the People’s Republic, science fiction’s probing of the frontiers of the imagination did not sit easily with the idea that Marxist dialectics held the key to the future. Distrust of the genre – as shown by a 2011 ban on time-travel stories in cinema and TV – has never entirely gone away.
Confusingly, time travel was exactly what powered Looper, the major sci-fi release in China the following year. Not exactly homegrown, it received co-production status – as opposed to being treated as a foreign import – thanks to being part-financed by local company DMG.
Sending Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitman into Shanghai exile, it diplomatically posited a future in which China was the dominant world power. It was the first attempt at big-budget sci-fi with Chinese involvement, after a long period during which the genre had been difficult to touch. Post-Cultural Revolution, there had been a brief flowering of sci-fi literature, which led to the 1980 release of the country’s first film in the genre, the camply jingoistic Death Ray on a Coral Island.
But science-fiction became a target during the 1983 “Anti-Spiritual Pollution” campaign that aimed to suppress Western cultural influence and largely disappeared.
A threat to the Communist Party?
Ironically, 30 years on, it is probably the success of Hollywood sci-fi like Avatar, the rebooted Star Trek series and Inception that has prised the door open once again for the genre. This sets up an interesting standoff between sci-fi’s growing box-office appeal in China and its status as an ongoing irritant to officialdom. Conceptually slippery and brimming with seditious tendencies, ever drawn to dystopia brooding, it’s not a genre that always toes the party line.
No native filmmaker, for example, would get away with the insurrectionist sentiments loudhailed in The Hunger Games. (The series was nevertheless strangely passed for release in China, and Katniss Everdeen’s three-fingered salute was widely adopted by the 2014 Hong Kong street protesters referenced in Ten Years.)
Explicit social and political themes referencing the country remain almost impossible to touch. Much Chinese sci-fi-tinged material of the past 20 years has ducked contemporary relevance and couched itself in the harmless huangdan (absurd) fantasy tradition; this is often aimed at children, like Stephen Chow’s 2008 blockbuster CJ7, about a construction worker who buys his son an alien toy. Huangdan is probably the best explanation we’ll get for the huge success of the Transformers films in China; a safely vacuous CGI delirium free of political comment.
It can’t be easy, in the light of the kind of inconsistencies thrown up by Looper and Hunger Games, for would-be Chinese sci-fi mavericks to decide how far to push things.
Even someone as professionally recalcitrant as Ai Weiwei sometimes has to pick his battles. After starring as a water smuggler in the futuristic short The Sand Storm, directed by the American Jason Wishnow but shot illicitly in Beijing, he objected to over-use of his image in promotion; ostensibly over lack of permission, but possibly also because his name all over such a dystopic slant on a difficult genre was likely to cause further problems for him while he was still barred from foreign travel.
Speaking for Ten Years, Ng Ka-leung is similarly guarded: “The project was not created with an intent to threaten the Communist Party, nor to point fingers at any political establishment.”
Ambiguous on a political level
Preceding Ten Years in the Hong Kong sci-fi stakes was Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, named for the year before which the city-state will pass fully back under Beijing’s control. It harbours rebellious sentiments, too.
The film mostly takes place against the backdrop of the anti-colonial riots in late 1960s Kowloon, when Tony Leung’s writer womanises his way through the guests at his hotel. Philandering is his attempt to recapture a great lost love, depicted in Wong’s earlier film In the Mood for Love, which also embodies an unachievable nostalgia for a bygone Hong Kong; this dissatisfaction fuels his writing of a sci-fi story, set on a gleaming train hurtling towards “2046”, a mysterious place no one has returned from.
A seductive snapshot of Hong Kong looking backwards while all the same being drawn forwards, 2046 is extremely ambiguous on a political level.
At least partly because Wong, refused permission to film on the mainland and threatened with a ban there, was treading carefully, too. “I was inspired by the situation in Hong Kong, but it has never been my intention to make films with any political content whatsoever,” he stonewalled in 2004 at the Cannes film festival.
If there is going to be an unfettering for Chinese sci-fi, Hong Kong – currently fixating on its own future and whose barrage of Asian neons have inspired many western sci-fi visions – would be a logical place for it to happen.
The 2014 short film Hong Kong Will Be Destroyed After 33 Years (the offending meteor strikes in, would you believe, 2047) had no time for Wong’s cryptic approach and became a viral hit banned by the PRC; Ten Years is following the same bulldozing path.
But the real pressure is building on the mainland. China has developed so rapidly over the past 20 years that, like in postwar America, the future is a natural preoccupation. In literature at least, it now has a respectable body of sci-fi authors working relatively free of restrictions, Liu Cixin being the most internationally renowned.
Chinese science-fiction is just waiting for its full upgrade to cinemas, in a fashion more brazenly tomorrow’s world than the kind of grimy sociological futurism visible in the work of Jia Zhangke, perhaps the country’s most feted auteur. Films such as 24 City, A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart set Zhangke’s characters adrift in a landscape of progress stretching towards a daunting future, but they’re not yet science-fiction.
The breakthrough could come in the next 12 months. If Looper didn’t confirm it, the Jackie Chan-produced Fatal Countdown: Reset – also themed around time travel – suggests the authorities are relaxing. The $135m-budget The Great Wall, directed by communist house director Zhang Yimou and co-produced with Paramount, is set in the 15th century but reportedly has strong sci-fi elements; there’s a strong huangdan whiff to it, but its enormous scale should boost the genre’s profile.
Most intriguing, though, is this July’s adaptation of Liu Cixin’s 2008 bestseller The Three-Body Problem.
Paid-up hard science fiction, it’s mostly set in an alternative 21st century in which aliens who made contact with a Chinese scientist during the Cultural Revolution are poised to colonise Earth.
Subtly critical of totalitarianism and full of geopolitical allegory, it is also a future in which Chinese culture and capabilities are 100 percent central. The Chinese could be about to learn what the Americans did long ago: sci-fi’s not just about the future, but about laying claiming to it, too.