Ever since the Hong Kong government announced new film censorship guidelines in June, local media workers have been deeply concerned about the limits on freedom of expression in arts and entertainment.
The latest stringent measures are dictatorial maneuvers designed to undermine the territory’s vibrant film culture. Without any clarification on how to implement these guidelines, the film censors warn media workers not to make and distribute films that could advance politically subversive ideas or actions against the Chinese communist state.
The practice of film censorship in Hong Kong dates back to the colonial era, when the British used censorship to silence competing Chinese political views amid the Cold War. Fearful of geopolitical risks, the British banned the entry of propaganda films from Maoist China and other communist countries to avoid internal ideological conflicts.
This history sets the stage for understanding the territory’s state-business nexus between the post-1997 government and filmmakers.
Since the 2000s, China has put in place business mechanisms, luring Hollywood and Hong Kong filmmakers to the vast mainland market. The arrangement has enabled Hong Kong films to enter China, often in the form of coproductions, without being restricted by the import quotas set for international films. This policy of co-option remains effective because the Chinese government monopolizes the networks of film distribution and exhibition.
The growing Chinese financial influence and censorship demand on Hong Kong has created a framework of “one cinema, two systems” in which most of the commercial movie studios tailor content to please the communist censors and access the lucrative market, while some independent filmmakers ignore Chinese sensitivities and produce critical films for limited audiences.
What is most troublesome now is the “mainlandization” of the Hong Kong film industry, in which the previous framework of “one cinema, two systems” has degenerated into that of “one cinema, one system.” It is impossible for Hong Kong film executives, directors and actors to be politically neutral because China’s definition of politics focuses narrowly on any opinion and action thought to be a security threat.
The need to compromise under state pressure has affected artistic practices on the ground. The popular political slogan “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” and the once-loved protest song Glory to Hong Kong are taboo.
Films about post-colonial Hong Kong such as Ten Years (十年) and Lost in the Fumes (地厚天高) are completely banned in public. The directors of Ten Years, Jevons Au (歐文傑) and Ng Ka-Leung (伍嘉良), allegedly fled to Canada and Britain due to fear of censorship and prosecution.
The Hong Kong Arts Development Council used to support artistic innovations through generous grants to local independent and art film productions. This year, the government banned the public release of two documentaries, Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城) and Taking Back the Legislature (佔領立法會) because of their depictions of the 2019 anti-extradition protests.
The council has also suspended funding to production company Ying E. Chi Ltd. This development has had a chilling effect on filmmakers and artists, limiting their ability to take on subjects of great public concern.
Nonetheless, young filmmakers are the cornerstone of the local film industry. They are still committed to showing the socioeconomic problems of Hong Kong.
Notable examples are I’m Livin’ It (麥路人) and Drifting (濁水漂流), capturing the stories of homeless Hong Kongers who are forming a supportive community against government harassment and intimidation, and who seek to make their voices heard and hold the hegemonic system accountable for their sufferings.
These innovative filmmakers are still pushing the envelope when representing how their protagonists cope with endless crises. What they display is a territory fraught with severe tensions and conflicts that cannot be resolved through further integration into an authoritarian rule.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University.
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