Chinese censorship threatens Hong Kong’s once vibrant film industry – The Washington Post | Episode Movies


HONG KONG – Director Chan Tze-woon’s latest film explores how political struggles have shaped the identity of Hong Kongers across generations. Still, it was never screened in the city where it’s set – where Chan was born and raised – and a significant portion of its funding came from abroad.

The story behind Blue Island, which won Best Documentary at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards on Saturday, is the story of how Hong Kong independent filmmakers are increasingly looking to foreign markets while domestic censorship ramps up.

Chan chose not to screen the film in local theaters as it would have required an official review under the city’s film censorship ordinance. Amid a 2020 security law intended to curb dissent after months of pro-democracy protests, the ordinance was amended last year to block content that could be seen as a threat to national security.

Recently, three Taiwanese films were snatched and had to delete scenes in order to get the necessary permits to enter local film festivals. In October, censors “recommended” against an outdoor performance of “The Dark Knight.” Although they gave no reason, the assumption was here that they were reacting to the portrayal of a corrupt Chinese businessman. The film was pulled.

Such challenges make Blue Island’s nomination all the more important, Chan said, increasing its visibility and sparking a discussion about the dramatic upheaval Hong Kong has experienced and its future.

The film shows “the real Hong Kong, its atmosphere and how locals and the diaspora are confronted with such tremendous changes,” Chan said. A blend of documentary and drama that follows generations of activists as they struggle to seek and uphold their freedoms was a select selection at the London, Toronto and Rotterdam Film Festivals and will be distributed in Taiwan in December.

“I hope the younger generation of filmmakers can feel that we’re not alone, that we don’t necessarily have to go down the commercial route and go through official censorship,” Chan said. “We can pioneer and go our own way in the pursuit of free filmmaking.”

Ten Years portrayed a dark vision of Hong Kong. Life mimicked art in barely half that time.

Other Hong Kong films that could win awards on Saturday include “The Sunny Side of the Street,” starring Anthony Wong, a popular actor who supported the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, and “Limbo,” a monochromatic depiction of the violent side of the city. None of the films were released in mainland China theaters.

Known as the Oscars of the Chinese-speaking world, the Golden Horse Awards are among the increasingly important platforms for independent filmmakers like Chan to shift their focus overseas and seek new ways to fund and promote their work to broader audiences. The organization behind the awards runs a special program to connect Chinese-speaking filmmakers with international industry that can support their artistic endeavors. This year there are 10 film projects from Hong Kong.

The film community has “demonstrated an ability to survive and thrive in the cracks,” said Kiwi Chow, who directed last year’s winning documentary Revolution of Our Times, which takes its name from a now-banned protest slogan. His film was also never shown in Hong Kong.

Not so long ago, Hong Kong cinema was a point of pride. The early 1990s marked its peak; Thanks to many eager investors, hundreds of films were produced annually. Stars like Jackie Chan have followed in Bruce Lee’s footsteps and reinvented the martial arts for a global audience. Directors like Wong Kar-wai captured the city’s beauty while summarizing its struggle for identity as the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Chow said he began reaching out to independent investors and freelance actors when larger film companies with ties to the mainland severed ties. Others have chosen to do the same rather than jeopardize their artistic expression. For example, Chan secured funding for “Blue Island” from France, South Korea and three other countries.

Not surprisingly, given the antagonistic relationship between China and Taiwan, the Golden Horse Awards have provoked Beijing’s own wrath.

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After a Taiwanese director expressed support for the self-governing island’s independence, Beijing banned mainland filmmakers from attending the 2019 ceremony. In September, an influential Hong Kong film association released a letter urging members to attend the ceremony to boycott this weekend amid “rising geopolitical tensions”.

Some local filmmakers benefit from cooperation with Chinese authorities. They gain access under a 2003 Beijing-Hong Kong film co-production deal, which continues to provide funding and access to bypass the mainland’s limited annual quota for imported films.

“Most Hong Kong directors and actors only participate in mainland-set stories,” said Lee Cheng-liang, assistant professor of communications at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “This collaboration is at the expense of the entire Hong Kong film industry as it transfers its skills and experience to China.”

But the attractiveness of the Chinese film market has diminished with stricter censorship. As of November, only 49 foreign films had passed the scrutiny and been admitted to mainland theaters that year, the lowest number in almost a decade.

The box office during the Chinese National Day holiday last month collapsed by over 60 percent compared to the 2021 holiday. patriotic movies, which often show Chinese officials or soldiers coming to the rescue of citizens to promote the Communist Party, accounted for more than two-thirds of ticket sales.

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“These films tell people’s stories not from the perspective of individualism but from collectivism,” said Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy. “Failing to present the real life of people and society will certainly affect audiences’ enthusiasm for watching films in the long run.”

He turned his back on the mainland and Hong Kong markets for Ren Xia, whose film May You Stay Forever Young was nominated for a Golden Horse Award last year could be a difficult decision. However, he is willing to live with that. In July, he helped draft a joint statement on filmmaking freedom, calling for uncompromising creation. Dozens of filmmakers in Hong Kong, including Chan and Chow, signed it.

“Making films is risky,” Ren said last week, noting that award-winning Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi have been jailed for telling the truth through their work. “If they can do it in a more dangerous situation than we can, we have no reason to be afraid.”

“Movies are really important to me,” he added. “I would sacrifice my freedom to keep shooting.”

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