“To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self” Documentary controversy, explained

On February 6, the documentary “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self” was suspended from public screening, as announced by the film’s director Mabel Cheung. A documentary that won praise from critics and earned huge commercial success, a film that was awarded “Best Film” of 2022 by The Hong Kong Film Critics Society, ended up in a spiral of controversies where public discourse and negative discussion spread like wildfire.

Involving a story that spans 12 years and large amounts of information, this article will summarise and explain what this controversy is all about.

What was the film about?

Inspired by the reconstruction project of its century-old campus, Ying Wa Girls’ School (YWGS) launched a project to document the metamorphosis of its students using the perspective of filmmaker Mabel Cheung, a notable alumna of the college.

Since 2011, the production team has been following six young students of YWGS, documenting their struggles throughout the most turbulent years in Hong Kong’s history. The film features the coming-of-age epic of the six alumnae, which is up close and personal, similar to the movie “Boyhood”.


Students running in “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self”

(Photo credit : Golden Scene HK)

The Catalyst

At midnight on February 5, Ming Pao Weekly exclusively published a 1,000-character-long article written by “Ah Ling”, one of the main characters featured in the film, explaining her doubts about the documentary filming process, the director’s handling method, and her neglected attempts to stop the film from being publicly screened. Ming Pao Weekly also published an interview with another protagonist “Ah Sheh”, where she also expressed resentment for the film’s public screening.

Main Accusations from Ah Ling’s Article

1. Ah Ling’s initial understanding of the production

Ah Ling emphasised that she and the other girls understanding of the film were always that it would only be for internal school screening and DVD, stating that the girls initially called Director Cheung’s team as “DVD team” throughout the 15,528 hours of filming. Therefore, when “Ah Ling” noticed that the film was going to be privately screened and used to participate in film festivals, she showed great resentment and disagreement.

 2 .   Lack of consent for inspection of the film

According to Ah Ling,  the school notified the girls that there were plans concerning the possibility of the film being screened in public half a year before the first internal school screening (second half of 2021). However, the documentary’s final cut was directly submitted to the Film Censorship Authority for screening inspection (which implies the intent of public screening), without being shown to the girls, nor seeking their consent beforehand.

3. Ah Ling’s vocal opinion and mental health condition, ignored

On December 1, 2021 (the date of the documentary’s first internal school screening), Ah Ling was emotionally unstable after the premiere and had to seek medical attention. After diagnosis by a school-provided psychiatrist, it was concluded that “the movie is not suitable for public screening in light of Ah Ling’s condition”. Although the school and Director Cheung had reached out to Ah Ling to understand her situation, Ah Ling insisted she did not want the film to be publicly screened. Yet, they ignored her view and the plans for public screening went on.

4. Refusal of cutting out Ah Ling’s part

In January 2022, the school proposed the film’s private screening and participation in film festivals for the first time. Ah Ling reiterated that she would not agree to the screening. If the director insisted, she would ask for all the clips related to her to be cut from the film, but director Cheung refused Ah Ling’s solution because the final cut had passed the Film Censorship Authority’s inspection.

5. Ah Ling did not give consent for screening

After the proposal, YWGS drafted a consent form, requesting the alumnae’s authorization for private screening and participation in the film festival. All protagonists in the film except Ah Ling signed the consent form.

6. Pressure from the school of binding power from past documents, and “silent consent”

In June 2022, the school once again tried to lobby Ah Ling. The school presented for the first time, a school reply slip signed by the parents of Ah Ling in 2012, in which they agreed to participate in the filming. At the same time, the school, the director, and the producer stated that they have sought legal advice, and warned she may have to bear legal responsibility if she refused to let the film go public. They also stated that even if Ah Ling did not sign any documents, the act of her continuous participation in filming after adulthood is giving “silent consent” to the production team, and is legally binding. The school retorted, deeming the previous consent form meaningless. Despite all the events above, the film went on to participate in film festivals and private screenings.

All the alumnae who participated in the shooting of “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self”, except Ah Ling, showed up at the Hong Kong International Film Festival Premiere on August 23, 2022.

7. Eventual public screening

In October 2022, the school notified Ah Ling that a public screening will take place regardless of whether she can accept it or not because the film has been signed by a film distributor.

On February 2, 2023, the film officially premiered for public screenings. Ah Ling did not attend the premiere.


One of the remaining posters of “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self” at a bus stop

Ernest Lo

Other protagonists coming out

Not only did Ah Ling come out with her disagreement with the release of the film, but other protagonists of the documentary have also spoken out after Ah Ling’s statement. As above-mentioned, “Ah Sheh”, also spoke out about how she was reserved towards the film being released in an interview with Ming Pao Weekly. She stated that she came to terms with the film’s public premiere due to it being an unchangeable fact, rather than her true acceptance of it.

Katie, nicknamed “Miss Hong Kong” in the film, also came out with her opinion on the film’s release, stating that she signed the consent form (the one after the school screening on January 2022) only because the school told her everyone has signed the form expect for her, and the fact that Ah Ling never signed the form simply means what the school had told her was false. Public opinion became more doubtful of the school’s means to pressure the girls into signing the consent form.

Athlete Lee Wai Sze coming out

On the afternoon on February 5, 2023, Olympic Cycling medalist Sarah Lee Wai-sze came out with a long article stating that she had no knowledge and consent that she would appear in “To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self” and stated that she would not watch the film and would not recommend it to anyone. This contributed greatly to the film’s eventual suspension. Her statement once again raised concerns over how director Cheung handles consent for her movie’s appearances.

Ying Wa Girl’s School’s response

On the same day, Ruth Lee, the former principal of YWGS, along with Francis Kwan, her successor, issued a response on Ming Pao Weekly, stating that they “will weigh carefully whether to continue [with the film]”.

The statement was widely criticised by netizens, claiming that lots of emotional and vague words were used in the declaration. like this better. The principals emphasised how the film was not for monetary profit, that they only wanted to record the personal journey of the students. They also emphasised the term “missed timing”, where they stated that cutting out Ah ling and halting the screening could not be done due to “missed timing”, and the weighing of interests of all stakeholders of the film was hard. They did not respond to Ah ling’s accusations towards the school, nor have they refuted them.

Mabel Cheung’s response

On February 6, director Cheung responded to the incident on the radio program “On a Clear Day”. She admitted that she did not put enough effort into communication and admitted that she knew in advance that Ah Ling only accepts private screenings or screenings at film festivals and does not want public screenings.

She apologised to Ah Ling in these words:

“I’m sorry towards her, … Cheer up, we’re suspending it (public screening) now.” (「對佢唔住」… 你開心返啲啦,我哋而家唔做喇。」) ”

She expressed dissatisfaction with Sarah Lee’s statement, pointing out that she told Lee that she was filming a school documentary at the time She said, “If she didn’t know (at the time of filming), I would like to call her and apologise for that.”

Hong Kong Film Awards Nominations

On February 9, the nominations for the Hong Kong Film Awards came out, and the film was nominated in three categories, namely “Best Film’, “Best Director” and “Best Editing”. On the same day, YWGS announced that the film’s nomination for the “Best Film Award” at the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards will be revoked. However, the Co-director of the film William Kwok Wai-Lun stated that the “Best Director” award nomination will remain, whereas Director Cheung claimed she respects her partner’s decision and stated that she will not participate in the award show.

Featured Image: Ernest Lo

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