14 edits in 25 minutes: how Hong Kong censors movies


The director of “Far From Home,” an intimate short about a family caught in the tumult of the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, had hoped to show her work at a local film festival in June.

Then the censors intervened.

They told director Mok Kwan-ling that his film’s title – which in Cantonese might contain a suggestion of cleaning up after a crime – had to drop. A dialogue expressing sympathy for an arrested protester had to be deleted. Scenes of removing objects from a room also had to be cut, apparently because they could be interpreted as concealing evidence.

In total, Mok was ordered to make 14 cuts of the 25-minute film. But she said it would have destroyed the balance she had tried to forge between the views of protesters and those who opposed them. She therefore refused, and her film has so far remained unpublished with the public.

“It was pretty contradictory with a good narrative and a good plot,” she said. “If a person is completely good or completely bad, it is very boring.”

Mok Kwan-ling, a freelance director, in Hong Kong on Monday, September 6, 2021 (Anthony Kwan / The New York Times)

Hong Kong’s world-famous film scene, which nurtured groundbreaking directors like John Woo and Wong Kar-wai, has become the latest form of expression to be censored since Beijing imposed a new strict national security law on the former British colony last year.

In March, a local theater withdrew the award-winning protest documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” after a state newspaper said it incited hatred against China. At least two Hong Kong directors have decided not to release new films locally. When an earlier film by one of these directors was shown at a private rally last month, the rally was raided by police.

Directors say they fear the government will force them to cut their films – and, potentially, put them in jail – if they reject the requests and show their work.

“Under the National Security Law, Hong Kong is no longer Hong Kong,” said Jevons Au, a director who moved to Canada shortly after the radical law was imposed. “Hong Kong is part of China, and its film industry will finally become part of the Chinese film industry.”

Beyond the law on national security, the government plans to toughen its censorship policies to allow it to prohibit or impose cuts of films deemed “contrary to the interests of national security”. These powers would also be retroactive, meaning that authorities could ban films that were previously approved. People who screen such films face up to three years in prison.

“Part of the underlying purpose of this law is to intimidate Hong Kong filmmakers, investors, producers, distributors and theaters into internalizing self-censorship,” said Shelly Kraicer, researcher in cinema specializing in Chinese language cinema. “There will be a lot of ideas that just won’t turn into projects and projects that won’t develop into films.”

A sculpture commemorating the Hong Kong Film Awards stands in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong on Monday, September 6, 2021. The Asian film capital has cracked down on documentaries and independent productions it says could glorify the pro movement. -democracy . (Anthony Kwan / The New York Times)

The new restrictions are unlikely to disrupt bigger budget Hong Kong films, which are increasingly made in collaboration with mainland companies and destined for the Chinese market. The producers are already ensuring that these films comply with continental censorship. Likewise, distributors and streaming services like Netflix, available in Hong Kong but not mainland China, are reluctant to cross the red lines.

“Netflix is ​​a business first and foremost,” said Kenny Ng, film censorship expert at the Hong Kong Baptist University Film Academy. “They show unconventional films, including politically controversial films, but only from a safe distance. I think Netflix has greater concerns about accessing commercial markets, even in mainland China. “

Representatives for Netflix did not respond to requests for comment.

The most likely targets of the new rules, which are expected to be approved this fall by the Hong Kong legislature, are independent documentaries and fiction films that address protests and opposition politics.

“For independent filmmakers who really want to make stories from Hong Kong to Hong Kong, it will be very difficult,” Au said. “They will have a lot of obstacles. It could even be dangerous.

The documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was shot by anonymous filmmakers who followed protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University when they were besieged by police for two weeks in 2019. In addition Of the film withdrawn from the local theater, the Arts Development Council of Hong Kong withdrew a $ 90,000 grant from Ying E Chi, the independent film collective that released it.

The censorship bureau initially approved the documentary for audiences over 18, but now some in the film industry believe it could be subject to a retroactive ban.

The creators of the fictional film “Ten Years,” which examined fears of the disappearance of the culture and freedoms that reinvigorated resistance to China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, say it could also be targeted under the new rules. Filmmakers struggled to find locations when the film was released in 2015, but it could now be banned altogether, said Au, who produced a vignette in the five-part film.

Kiwi Chow, who also directed part of “Ten Years”, knew his protest documentary “Revolution of Our Times” had no chance of being approved in Hong Kong. Even its overseas premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July required special care. It was released on short notice towards the end of the festival so Beijing could not pressure the organizers to block it.

Chow sold the rights to the film to a European distributor and, before his return to Hong Kong, deleted footage of the film from his own computers for fear that it would be arrested.

Kiwi Chow, who directed the protest documentary Revolution of Our Times, in his studio in Hong Kong on Monday, September 6, 2021. Anthony Kwan / The New York Times)

Some of the 152-minute film’s subjects, including pro-democracy activists such as Benny Tai and Gwyneth Ho, are now in jail. Chow was also worried about being arrested. His friends and family have warned him to leave town, release the film anonymously, or change its title. The title is taken from the slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time”, which the government has described as an illegal call for Hong Kong independence.

But Chow said he ultimately pursued the film as he envisioned it out of a sense of responsibility to the project, its subject, and its team.

“I have to do what is right and not let fear shake my beliefs,” he said.

Although he has yet to face direct retaliation, he said there were signs it could happen.

When he attended a small private screening of “Beyond the Dream,” a non-partisan romance he directed, police raided the event. Chow and about 40 people who attended the screening at a pro-democracy district representative’s office were each fined around $ 645 for breaking social distancing rules.

“It sounds like a warning sign from the regime,” he said. “It’s not very direct. It remains to be seen whether the regime has started its work: has a case against me been opened?


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