Voices of a Generation: “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self”

Producer, writer and director Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting bursts into the boardroom in her distributor Golden Scene’s office in Jordan about 10 minutes behind schedule on the packed Thursday afternoon before Chinese New Year. She’s decked out in artistic black, accessorised with her signature beret and green-tinted mini sunglasses. Traffic is miserable and she’s got a full day of media appearances ahead of her. Nonetheless, she looks relaxed, and pleased to know To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self, the decade-spanning documentary tracking the lives of a group of Ying Wa GirlsSchool students, is finally opening.

When we last spoke to Cheung it was in the middle of 2020. The pandemic wasn’t yet endemic, and the National Security Law and subsequent rules governing filmmaking in Hong Kong had yet to make their impact truly known. Cheung was still at work on Nineteen, and at the time was editing towards a late 2020, maybe early 2021, release. Needless to say, a lot happened in the intervening three years to backburner the film’s release. 

The virus that causes Covid-19, specifically the more contagious Omicron variant, surged in early 2022, once again shuttering cinemas and postponing the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), previously set for March. But just as things seemed most dire, the fog lifted and the city got on the road to recovery. HKIFF was back on for August and To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self was scheduled for a gala premiere. 

Ruth Lee Shek Yuk Yu, principal of Ying Wa from 2001 to 2015 – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

Then, disaster. Just as Cheung was putting the finishing touches on three years of editing and re-editing, her long-term professional and personal partner, Alex Law Kai-yui, passed away in July. With the exception of Danish director Bille August’s 2017 drama The Chinese Widow (which Cheung wrote) and The Banquet (1991), Law and Cheung produced, directed and wrote 11 films together, starting in 1985, among them Hong Kong Film Award winner An Autumn’s Tale (1987), The Soong Sisters (1997), City of Glass (1998), and Echoes of the Rainbow, which took home a Childrens Jury “Generation Kplus” Crystal Bear for best film at Berlin in 2010. As a pair, they were among the vanguards of Hong Kong’s New Wave of the 1980s.

“I felt like I should be thrown into a black hole. And if I sat at home I’d be drawn to that black hole, the dark and the hopelessness,” says Cheung. She’s not weepy, but the wound is understandably still fresh six months later. “But the film [screened at HKIFF] in August, and I received a lot of support and some good reviews, and it was [as] if there was a small garden beside the black hole. So I could hide there instead. I worked hard because I wanted to stay in that garden. But [Chinese New Year] will be tough because the garden will be closed,” she adds with a little chuckle.

Following a series of hugely successful weekend special screenings, Golden Scene finally found a home for Nineteen this month. The documentary chronicles the coming-of-age of a class of girls from Ying Wa, the form 1 to 6 secondary school that Cheung is also an alumnus of, as they grow up during the volatile years between 2011 and 2021 and attempts to parse the kind of impact that period — which included the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the broad protests of 2019 — had on them, in addition to the universal issues of self-esteem, relationships with friends and family, and hopes and fears for the future. 

Former principal Ruth Lee Shek Yuk-yu, who retired in 2015, initially approached Cheung about documenting the HK$600 million redevelopment of Ying Wa’s campus on elite Robinson Road, replacing the building that’s stood there since 1967. They were in agreement that the construction, and the temporary decanting to a temporary facility in what was then more working-class Sham Shui Po, was best used as a springboard for a wider exploration of contemporary youth. “The new campus was only a minor factor,” explains Cheung, a New York University film school graduate. “Interviewing the girls with complete freedom and watching an entire generation grow up was worth the effort.”

Looking back, Cheung sees the Covid delay as a blessing in disguise, especially considering her (and her team of editors’) herculean task of whittling down a staggering 200,000 hours of raw footage to a focused, roughly two-hour film. By comparison, Francis Ford Coppola shot 277 hours for his notoriously out-of-control Apocalypse Now.

“Even if cinemas hadn’t closed it still would have taken that extra time [to finish]. We had contracts, but we wanted to show the film to the girls first. Legally I could have said the film was done and it was being released, but 10 years is a long time. They grew up, and I wanted them to feel comfortable, especially in light of some of the more controversial parts of the film [related to protests]. I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed, so we showed it to them. We didn’t realise what would happen back in 2011.”

Roughly 10 days later, after the lunar new year holiday, it’s all hands on deck, and the girls, now young women, that are the central characters of the film are back at Ying Wa for an official media launch. There’s Britney, the popular girl who got tagged as the virtue-free one (she dared have a boyfriend) but who struggled with depression; garrulous historian Chloe (Birdy), who’s often seen with her dad; Jenny, at one point a competitive cycling candidate under pressure to succeed; and Karen, also known as Madam, thanks to her early ambitions of becoming a cop. The fifth, Katy, nicknamed Miss Hong Kong, relocated overseas with her troubled family, which clearly impacted her school life. 

It’s easy to see why Cheung selected these five girls to track over the long haul, and fortunately for the film each highlighted one of the many challenges maturing girls faced. The entire class (and their parents) agreed to participate in the film back in 2011, based in part on the success of Echoes of the Rainbow. Cheung asked the 50 girls Lee suggested to write a letter to themselves at 19, to “get an idea of their personalities and how analytical they were,” she says. Even still, she could never have predicted how distinct each girl would wind up being, and how vividly they would reflect the city’s changing landscape.

Sitting around a cafeteria table, they’ve grown and changed in drastically different ways, but they seem open and at ease with who they are, and comfortable in their own skins. None has any time to worry about what they may have said when they were 13. It’s nice to see, knowing where they’ve come from. Britney and Jenny look most like they did in the film. Both are still in university studying nursing and physical education respectively. Chloe is working in medical IT and Karen teaches secondary school – but she hasn’t entirely given up on joining the police force.

“Sometimes I’m irritated by how big my face looks,” Karen jokes about how she thinks she comes across in the film, but that joking was hard earned. After seeing an early cut, she just wanted to be deleted from it as much as possible, particularly in 2019, when public opinion of the police was at a low. “I couldn’t face the situation. The internet scene was horrible. I didn’t read any comments, but friends told me what was being said. I was the bad guy,” she remembers with a shake of her head. “But now I just don’t care. This is me. It’s my history. And I have value. You can have your opinion, but you do you and I’ll do me.” 

Having your entire middle and high school life recorded for the world to see is something most students don’t have to worry about, which Cheung notes is the most significant difference between when she attended Ying Wa and now. Her teenage misdeeds are distant memories, not captured by social media, much less a documentary film. Like Karen, Britney brushes the trolls off.

“Those messages are entertainment,” she says, a comment greeted by laughter from the others. “You can insult me all you want, I went through it. When I was younger I cared about what people said, and I wanted to fight back. But this is useless. I can’t do anything about it.”

Chloe is still garrulous, and has unwittingly turned into the anchor that grounds the group. She’s comfortable with her role as “comic relief,” and the one student without a dramatic storyline. “Friends who’ve seen the film have told me every time I come on the screen people laugh,” she says while citing Katy, who’s fracturing family forms one of the film’s narratives, as a counter to her and her father’s playful dynamic. “No one wants to be the comedian nowadays. Everyone’s very stressed out. But if I, if Birdy, can make you laugh, then that’s good. We’ve forgotten how to laugh, especially under the mask.”

Earlier in Golden Scene’s office, Cheung reflected on the final product, and how her attempt to analyse the transformation of the girls into women in the 2010s left her with more questions than answers, particularly when she sat down with eight to nine years of material and had to locate its story arc. She admits worrying about the fallout that might have landed after she finished the film, for which she insisted on having the last word.

“I knew a doc could be complicated, so I demanded final cut. Ruth [Lee, the principal] thought she talked too much. The girls thought they looked fat. Their parents worried they didn’t have on makeup and so on,” Cheung recalls. Ironically, her biggest fear didn’t materialise. “The censors were no trouble. We got a IIA, no strings. The only thing they suggested was cutting out a smoking scene in order to get a Category I rating,” she shrugs. Indeed, Cheung was well aware, like many filmmakers right now, that some of her imagery could run afoul of the hazy line between approval and prohibition. “I know that if I were to be honest I would have to include images of the various movements [the girls] encountered growing up. And I’m not going to self-censor. Everything had an effect on them, and they have their ideas. But they’re a small part of a larger picture. The film isn’t just about them. It’s about growing up, about society, about education, about parenthood, and about the rapid changes in the last 10 years in Hong Kong.”

Cheung also admits to being surprised by the early positive buzz and packed house previews, explaining that during the long editing process simply couldn’t see what she was constructing. She was simply too close. “I had no idea how much of themselves audiences would see in these girls – parents, teachers, religious groups, and of course people who are their age, who went through this period too. It made them feel not so alone.”

To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self slots in nicely with Cheung’s body of work, defined by its emotional accessibility and attention to the human details, like the battle between hope and desperation in her debut, The Illegal Immigrant (1985). But she has no plans to chronicle a group of boys on a similar path, nor does she expect to follow-up with the women of Ying Wa when they’re in their thirties. If I went back theyd be prepared,” she notes of the now media-savvy group. “Theyd know how to respond on camera and how to behave.” She pauses. “Theyd be just a little less genuine.”

To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self opened in wide release on February 2, but screenings were cancelled after one of the documentary’s participants raised an objection to her inclusion in the film. We will update the story if and when screenings resume.

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