2021-09-28 17:30:10 How Hong Kong Censors Films to Protect National Security

How Hong Kong Censors Films to Protect National Security

HONG KONG (AP) — The director of “Far From Home,” a short, intimate film about a family caught up in the tumult of Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government protests, had hoped to showcase her work at a local film festival in June.

The censors then intervened.

They told the director, Mok Kwan-ling, that the title of her film, which could imply cleaning up after a crime in Cantonese, had to be changed. Dialogue expressing sympathy for a detained protester was cut. Scenes of removing items from a room had to be cut as well, presumably because they could be interpreted as concealing evidence.

Ms. Mok was ordered to cut 14 minutes from the 25-minute film. However, she claimed that doing so would have shattered the balance she had attempted to strike between protesters’ and opponents’ points of view. As a result, she refused, and her film has thus far gone unnoticed by the general public.

“It was quite contradictory to a good narrative and plot,” she explained. “It’s very boring if a person is completely good or completely bad.”

A local theater pulled the award-winning protest documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” in March after a state-run newspaper claimed it incited anti-China sentiment. At least two Hong Kong directors have decided not to release new films in their home country. When one of those directors’ previous film was shown to a private gathering last month, the gathering was raided by the police.

Directors say they are afraid the government will force them to cut their films — and potentially imprison them — if they refuse to comply with the demands and show their work.

“Under the national security law, Hong Kong is no longer Hong Kong,” said Jevons Au, a director who relocated to Canada shortly after the law went into effect. “Hong Kong is a part of China, and its film industry will eventually merge with China’s film industry.”

Aside from the national security law, the government intends to toughen its censorship policies to allow it to ban or force cuts to films deemed “contrary to national security interests.” Such powers would also be retroactive, which means that the authorities could prohibit films that had previously been approved. Individuals who show such films face up to three years in prison.

“Part of the underlying goal of this law is to intimidate Hong Kong filmmakers, investors, producers, distributors, and theaters into internalizing self-censorship,” said Shelly Kraicer, a Chinese-language film researcher. “There will be a lot of ideas that will never become projects, and projects that will never be developed into films.”

The new restrictions are unlikely to affect higher-budget Hong Kong films, which are increasingly being produced in collaboration with mainland companies and marketed to the Chinese market. Producers are already working to ensure that the films are censorship-compliant on the mainland. Similarly, distributors and streaming services such as Netflix, which is available in Hong Kong but not on the Chinese mainland, are wary of crossing red lines.

“Netflix is first and foremost a business,” said Kenny Ng, a film censorship expert at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film. “They show unusual films, including politically charged ones, but only from a safe distance. I believe Netflix is more concerned about commercial market access, even in mainland China.”

Requests for comment from Netflix representatives were not returned.

The new rules, which are expected to be approved by Hong Kong’s legislature this fall, are most likely to target independent documentaries and fictional films dealing with protests and opposition politics.

“It will be very difficult for those independent filmmakers who really want to do Hong Kong stories in Hong Kong,” said Mr. Au, the director who relocated to Canada. “They will face numerous challenges. It could even be hazardous.”

The documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was shot by anonymous filmmakers who followed protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University during their two-week siege by police in 2019. In addition to pulling the film from local theaters, the Arts Development Council of Hong Kong rescinded a $90,000 grant to Ying E Chi, the independent film collective that released it.

The censorship office initially approved the documentary for audiences over the age of 18, but some in the film industry believe it may now face a retroactive ban.

Creators of the fictional film “Ten Years,” which examined the fears of vanishing culture and freedoms that invigorated the resistance to China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, say it could also be targeted under the new rules. The filmmakers had difficulty finding venues when the film was released in 2015, but now it may be completely banned, according to Mr. Au, who directed one of the five-part film’s vignettes.

Kiwi Chow, who also directed part of “Ten Years,” knew that his protest documentary “Revolution of Our Times” had no chance of being approved in Hong Kong. Even its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July necessitated extra precautions. Because it was shown on short notice near the end of the festival, Beijing was unable to exert pressure on the organizers to prevent it.

Mr. Chow sold the film rights to a European distributor and, before he returned to Hong Kong, deleted footage of the film from his own computers out of fear he might be arrested.

Some of the subjects of the 152-minute film, including pro-democracy activists such as Benny Tai and Gwyneth Ho, are now in jail. Mr. Chow feared he, too, might be arrested. Friends and family warned him to leave the city, release the film anonymously or change its title. The title is drawn from the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” which the government has described as an illegal call for Hong Kong independence.

But Mr. Chow said he ultimately went ahead with the film as he had envisioned it out of a sense of responsibility to the project, its subject and crew.

“I need to do what’s right and not let fear shake my beliefs,” he said.

While he has yet to face direct retaliation, he said there were signs it could be coming.

When he attended a small, private showing of “Beyond the Dream,” a nonpolitical romance that he directed, the police raided the event. Mr. Chow and about 40 people who attended the screening at the office of a pro-democracy district representative were each fined about $645 for violating social distancing rules.

“It seems like a warning sign from the regime,” he said. “It’s not very direct. It’s still a question whether the regime has begun its work: Has a case on me been opened?”

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How Hong Kong Censors Films to Protect National Security