Iron curtain falls on Hong Kong cinema as censors demand cuts


By Su Xinqi and Yan Zhao

Once renowned for its world-class cinema, Hong Kong’s film industry was already struggling with the final hurdle – Chinese-style censorship as authorities extend their cleansing to dissent in the cultural sphere.

Filmmaker Mok Kwan-ling’s heart sank when the email from government censors fell.

Journalist and director Mok Kwan-ling posing for a photo on a Hong Kong street where she filmed a scene from her film where parts of the government are censoring. Photo: Isaac Lawrence / AFP.

In June, authorities announced that all films would now be screened for “national security” attacks. Mok’s was the first to break these rules.

For months she had been editing her first drama, a 27-minute drama inspired by the many young couples she met at huge democracy protests two years ago.

It tells the story of a young woman meeting the parents of her boyfriend after his arrest for participating in the protests. The boyfriend’s mother is opposed to the movement, his father sympathetic.

The Cantonese title “Zap Uk” (literally “cleaning the house”) refers to how friends and family often remove any incriminating material once a loved one has been arrested.

But Mok said Hong Kong film censors were not happy with what had been submitted and ordered him to make 14 cuts.

Among the changes they demanded was the removal of a line from the father saying their son was a first aid volunteer who was “only there to save people” as well as the removal of a scene where the same character, a truck driver, charges the protesters with a fare discount.

Censors also called for the film to be renamed and to carry a warning that it showed criminal offenses.

“I thought the story was pretty balanced in featuring voices from two sides,” Mok told AFP.

“It turns out that one part in particular is not allowed to be heard.”

Mok felt the cuts would leave her film “devoid of essence and meaning” so she put it aside for now.

“My film turned out to be the first but it will not be the last,” she warned.

AFP has contacted the Film Censorship Authority in Hong Kong for comment.

The blunt golden age

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong was known as the “Hollywood of the Far East,” with a cast of world-renowned stars like Chow Yun-fat and writers such as Wong Kar-wai.

The golden age of Cantonese cinema has long been overshadowed by the rise of films from mainland China and South Korea.

But the city has maintained a vibrant independent scene, protected by free speech protections that have allowed directors to tackle topics that would be untouchable on the authoritarian continent.

Those days are now over.

China is rapidly reshaping Hong Kong in its own image after the democracy protests, and the films are just the latest in a long list of targets.

In addition to the new control rules, a law being passed by the legislature will extend censorship to previously authorized films and strengthen penalties for infringement.

Director Kiwi Chow poses for a portrait in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. – Once renowned for its world-class cinema, Hong Kong’s already struggling film industry faces a new hurdle. Photo: Isaac Lawrence / AFP.

Kiwi Chow was one of five directors who contributed short stories for “Ten Years”.

The 2015 film paints a dystopian portrait of what Hong Kong might look like in a decade with Beijing stifling the city’s Cantonese freedoms and culture.

Besides being prescient, “Ten Years” was a commercial success and won the Best Picture award at the annual city awards.

But it is unlikely that such a production can now be made – or even shown.

“They are trying to suppress our memory and our imagination,” Chow told AFP.

Blacklisted pop star

Chow’s latest project “Revolution of Our Times” is a 2.5 hour documentary on the protests of 2019.

Organizers secretly added it to the Cannes Film Festival lineup earlier this summer – only after mainland Chinese films have screened.

But Chow said he had given up on any hope of showing it in Hong Kong.

“If it’s dangerous and risky for filmmakers to tackle social issues… then I could only project it outside of Hong Kong,” Chow said.

Kiwi Chow and the camcorder he used on the first day of filming his documentary “Revolution of Our Times”. Photo: Kelly Ho / HKFP.

To protect himself, he said, he sold the copyright and removed all locally owned images. The production team, collaborators and funders have chosen to remain anonymous.

Still, some investors and actors have pulled out of his non-political productions, and a recent showing of a romance he made has been raided by police.

Fear of angering Beijing has long fueled self-censorship in the Hong Kong arts, but the blacklist of those who speak out on the mainland is also ongoing.

Earlier this month, pro-democracy pop star Denise Ho was forced to cancel her concert after withdrawing from the venue citing “public safety” concerns just days before her performance.

But Chow predicts that censorship will do little to change the desire of Hong Kong people to have more say in how their city is run and smacks of weakness.

“The more bans there are in the name of national security, the less secure the state will be,” he said.

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