For decades, Hong Kong’s film industry has enchanted the global audience with ballet shoot-em-ups, epic martial arts fantasies, spooky comedies and shadowy romance. Now, on the orders of Beijing, local officials will investigate such works in order to protect the People’s Republic of China.
The city’s government said Friday it would begin blocking the distribution of films believed to undermine national security, marking the official arrival of Chinese censorship on the mainland at one of Asia’s most famous film hubs.
The new guidelines, which apply to both domestically produced and foreign films, come as a sharp blow to the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where government-protected freedom of speech and a reverent local culture had permeated the city with a cultural vitality that set it apart from mainland megacities .
Hong Kong’s large film industry is as much a pillar of its identity as its food, its soaring skyline or its financial services sector.
During its heyday as a film capital in the decades after World War II, the city struck incredibly popular genre flaps and nurtured writers like Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui. It has featured international stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Tony Leung. The influence of the Hong Kong cinema can be seen in the work of Hollywood directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and in major cases such as “The Matrix”.
Censorship concerns have threatened Hong Kong’s creative industries ever since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. But concerns that once felt theoretical have become frighteningly real since Beijing passed a national security law last year to repeal the protocol against the government. that city shakes in 2019.
So even though few in the local film industry said they felt completely on guard against the new guidelines for censorship released Friday, they still expressed concern that the wide range of rules would not only affect which films were shown in Hong Kong, but also how they are produced and whether they are made at all.
“How do you raise money?” asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker who has had trouble screening his work in the city. “Can you openly gather and say that this is a film about certain views, certain activities?”
Even feature filmmakers, he said, will be left to speculate in anxious anticipation whether their films will violate the Security Act. “It’s not just a matter of activist filmmaking or political filmmaking, but the overall scene of filmmaking in Hong Kong.”
The censorship directives are the latest sign of how thoroughly Hong Kong is being reshaped by Beijing’s security law, which aimed at the city’s pro-democracy protest movement but has had devastating consequences for aspects of its character.
With the blessing of the Communist government, the Hong Kong authorities have changed the school’s curricula, pulled books off the library shelves and moved to review the election. Police have arrested pro-democracy activists and politicians as well as a high-profile newspaper publisher.
And within art, the law has created an atmosphere of fear.
The updated rules, announced on Friday, require Hong Kong censors considering a film for distribution not only for violent, sexual and vulgar content, but also for how the film portrays acts “which may constitute an offense that threatens national security. “
Anything that is “objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or encouraging” such actions is potentially the basis for considering a film unsuitable for exhibition, the rules now say.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censor’s judgment to the content of the film alone.
“When considering the impact of the film as a whole and its likely impact on the people who are likely to see the film,” the guidelines say, “the censor must take into account the duties of preventing and suppressing action or activity that brings national security. in danger.”
A Hong Kong government statement on Friday said: “The legal framework of film censorship is based on the premise of a balance between the protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other.”
The ambiguity in the new provisions is in line with what the critics of the Security Act say is its ambiguously defined offenses that give the authorities wide leeway to target activists and critics.
Tin Kai-man from the Federation of Hong Kong Film Producers told the local TV station TVB that the industry should better understand whether the censors’ decisions could be appealed – after they had decided, for example, that a film could not be shown in Hong Kong due to of national security risks.
“All this must first be made clear,” said Mr. Tin. “We don’t want this thing to come in and grow out of control, so we’re starting to worry about the impact on film production.”
The new guidelines for censorship, announced Friday, appear to be aimed in part at a specific type of film. They say censors should give extra control to any film that “pretends to be a documentary” or to report on “real events with an immediate connection to the circumstances in Hong Kong.”
Why? “The local audience can probably feel stronger about the content of the film.”
According to the guidelines, censors must “carefully examine whether the film contains any biased, unconfirmed, false or misleading narratives or presentation of comments.”
It could spell tighter controls for films like “Ten Years,” a low-budget independent production from 2015 that offered dystopian tales of life in a Hong Kong 2025 curling under Beijing’s grip. It could also put a chill on the documentary’s efforts to chronicle Hong Kong’s political unrest.
A short documentary on the 2019 protests, “Do Not Divide,” was nominated for an Oscar this year, raising global awareness of China’s disintegration in the city. (The film’s nomination may have played a role in Hong Kong’s broadcasters’ decision not to broadcast the Oscars this year for the first time in decades, even though one station called it a commercial decision.)
Efforts to bring other political-themed documentaries to Hong Kong audiences in recent months have been engulfed in bitter controversy.
A screening of a documentary about the protests in 2019 was canceled at the last minute this year after a newspaper pro-Beijing said the film encouraged undermining. The University of Hong Kong called on its student union to cancel a screening of a film about a imprisoned activist.
The screening continued as planned. But a few months later, the university said it would stop charging membership fees on behalf of the organization and would stop managing its finances as punishment for its “radical actions.”
Mainland China has long limited the number of films made outside of China that can be shown in local cinemas. But Hong Kong has functioned much like any other film market around the world, with cinemagoers booking whatever tickets were sold.
The city’s expanded censorship could therefore take a small but meaningful bite out of Hollywood’s overseas box office.
“Joker”, the supervillain movie from Warner Bros. from 2019, for example, were not cleared for release in Chinese cinemas on the mainland. But it totaled more than $ 7 million in Hong Kong, according to entertainment industry database IMDBpro.
China has become more important to Hollywood in recent years because it is one of the few countries where film travel is growing. Ticket sales in the United States and Canada, which make up the world’s No. 1 film market, were flat between 2016 and 2019 at $ 11.4 billion. According to the Motion Picture Association. During that period, ticket sales in China rose 41 percent to $ 9.3 billion.
As a result, U.S. studies have increased their efforts to work within China’s censorship system.
Last year, PEN America, the free speech group, incited Hollywood leaders to voluntarily censor movies to place China with “content, casting, plot, dialogue, and options” tailored “to avoid discouraging Chinese officials.” In some cases, PEN said, the studies have “directly encouraged Chinese government censors to use their film sets to advise them on how to avoid triggering censors’ wires.”
Brooks Barnes contributed reporting from Los Angeles.