China has barred CCTV and Tencent from broadcasting the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival awards ceremony after the independent Hong Kong film Ten Years (十年) was nominated for best picture.
The ban has placed the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology above arts and violated the public’s right to freedom of artistic expression, the rights of Hong Kong filmmakers to share their creations and the rights of Chinese to enjoy films and participate in cultural dialogue.
A low-budget production, Ten Years is comprised of five short films, resonating with the public sentiment following 2014’s “Umbrella movement” and presenting a dystopian view of the territory’s future in 2025. The movie marks a clear break from the trend of cinematic escapism that once characterized the Hong Kong film industry.
For more than half a century, the Hong Kong film industry was dominated by martial arts action movies featuring Bruce Lee (李小龍), Jackie Chan (成龍), Sammo Hung (洪金寶), Jet Li (李連杰) and Donnie Yen (甄子丹). The plots of the movies were linear and repetitive, lacking coherence and depth, but their fight sequences were carefully choreographed. The industry owed its success to stunning visual effects, lavish fighting scenes and tearful melodramas. The styles gave moviegoers pure entertainment, an escape from daily hardships and an illusion for a better life.
Chan’s earlier films in the 1970s and 1980s were loaded with scenes of comedic violence. John Woo’s (吳宇森) A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色) trilogy represented a new era of heroic bloodshed on screen and greatly inspired Hollywood and South Korean filmmakers. Hark Tsui’s (徐克) Once Upon a Time in China (黃飛鴻) trilogy, featuring Li as the martial arts legend Wong Feihong (黃飛鴻), reconciled Chinese nationalistic sentiment with Cantonese identity.
Meanwhile, arthouse movie directors such as Wong Kar-wai (王家衛), Clara Law (羅卓瑤), Stanley Kwan (關錦鵬) and Anna Hui (許鞍華) questioned the complicated issues of urban realism, identity formation and border crossings.
In post-colonial Hong Kong cinema, violence, crime and overlapping identities are widely used in conjunction with more sophisticated story lines, the best examples being the Infernal Affairs (無間道) trilogy and PTU: Police Tactical Unit.
The diverse genres helped Hong Kong filmmakers to earn worldwide recognition. The action movies, romantic comedies, historical epics and arts films not only shed light on the media representations of past and present as events, experiences and myths, but also captured the cross between global and local cinema, transnational capital and Cantonese identity.
Hong Kong cinema has rebranded itself. The development prompted local film producers to engage with Taiwanese, Japanese, South Korean, European and US filmmakers. For a city with a population of 8 million, Hong Kong continues to be a relevant cinematic force in the face of a hegemonic Hollywood system and a resurgence of Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, Indian and Thai cinema.
By partnering with studios in the US and mainland China, Hong Kong filmmakers produced movies both for regional and international audiences.
The most notable transformation was the Hong Kong filmmakers’ cooperation with China after the implementation of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) in 2004.
The CEPA allowed Hong Kong films to enter the lucrative Chinese market, often in the form of coproductions, without being restricted by the import quotas set for foreign films. Removing the barriers that had hampered Hong Kong filmmakers, the business model was designed to spread risk, secure a larger market, gain access to international studios and boost commercial values of cross-border productions.
China seeks to turn itself into a global powerhouse of film and media production, and the coproduction agreement with Hong Kong has paved the way for reshaping the landscape of regional filmmaking.
Attracting Hong Kong filmmakers with irresistible financial incentives, China set out to dominate the domestic box office with Chinese films rather than Hollywood productions.
The Chinese Film Bureau has expressed the hope that under the CEPA, Hong Kong producers would advance the goal of promoting national reintegration, but the products turned out to be politically ambiguous. Previous large-scale representations of Chinese history like Jacob Cheung’s (張之亮) Battle of Wits (墨攻) and Teddy Chan’s (陳德森) Bodyguards and Assassins (十月圍城) displayed a rising China that is trapped in confusion, chaos and instability rather than being capable of building a prosperous society and achieving national rejuvenation.
The rise of the China-Hong Kong coproductions coincides with the rise of a critical “new wave” in the Hong Kong film scene. The term “new wave” was used to describe the television and documentary works produced by idealistic directors from 1976 to 1984. However, there is a new generation of post-colonial filmmakers whose political worldview differs considerably from those of the 1970s and 1980s.
Witnessing the transition of Hong Kong from a colony into a special administrative region under communist rule, the young producers oppose the territory’s Sinicization. They are aware that they are working in an environment different from British Hong Kong. They address local controversies with a critical awareness of intra and intercultural flows in the region. Their cosmopolitanism rejects the patriarchal, chauvinist and xenophobic Hong Kong sentiments typical of colonial inferiority. Searching for local sensitivities, these conscientious directors articulate a cinematic vision of grassroots resistance against capitulating to Chinese hegemony.
Respect for artistic freedom is a fundamental virtue in a democratic society. As Taiwan has freed itself from the ideological remnants of the White Terror era, it sets an example for Hong Kong. Taiwanese filmmakers, both commercial and independent ones, have asserted the right to dissent, to employ Aboriginal symbols against Chinese hegemony and to express their unique worldviews.
Taiwan and Hong Kong permit the freedom of artistic expression that is not fully available in China, where official censorship and business pressures prevail.
Taiwanese and Hong Kong film festivals have a respectable tradition of supporting independent cinema. In the Chinese ideological climate, the artistic platforms play an even more important role in defending innovative films like Ten Years.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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