HONG KONG – The director of “Far From Home”, a short, intimate film about a family trapped in the tumult of the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, was expected Show Your Work at a Local Film Festival in June.
Then the sensor stepped in.
He told director Mok Kwan-ling that the title of his film – which in Cantonese may suggest a cleanup after a crime – must be known. A dialogue expressing sympathy for an arrested protester had to be excised. Scenes of removing belongings from a room also had to be cut, apparently because they could be perceived as hiding evidence.
In all, Ms. Mok was ordered to make 14 cuts from the 25-minute film. But he said that by doing so, an attempt was made to strike a balance between the views of the protesters and those who opposed them. So he declined, and his film has been overlooked by the public until now.
“It was quite the antithesis to a good narrative and a good plot,” she said. “If a person is totally good or totally bad, that’s pretty boring.”
In March, a local theater pulled the award-winning protest documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” after a state-run newspaper said it incited hatred of China. At least two Hong Kong directors have decided not to release new films locally. When the previous film of one of those directors was shown at a private gathering last month, the gathering was raided by the police.
Directors say they fear the government will force them to cut their films – and potentially, put them in jail – if they reject the demands and show their work.
“Under national security law, Hong Kong is no longer Hong Kong,” said Jevons Au, a director who moved to Canada soon after the comprehensive law came into force. “Hong Kong is part of China, and its film industry will eventually become a part of China’s film industry.”
Beyond national security law, The government plans to tighten its censorship policies To allow it to ban or forcefully cut films deemed “contrary to the interests of national security”. Such powers would also be retroactive, meaning the authorities could bar films that were previously approved. People showing such films can be jailed for up to three years.
“Part of the underlying goal of this law is to intimidate Hong Kong filmmakers, investors, producers, distributors and theaters into internalizing self-censorship,” said Shelley Cresser, a film researcher specializing in Chinese-language cinema. “There will be a lot of ideas that just aren’t going to be projects and projects that aren’t being developed into movies.”
The new restrictions are unlikely to upset big-budget Hong Kong films, which are being made in collaboration with mainland companies and aimed at the Chinese market. Producers are already working to ensure that those films comply with mainland censorship. Similarly, distributors and streaming services such as Netflix, which is available in Hong Kong but not mainland China, are wary of crossing red lines.
“Netflix is a business first,” said Kenny Ng, a specialist in film censorship at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Film Academy. “They show unconventional films, including politically controversial films, but only from a safe distance. I think Netflix has bigger concerns about access to commercial markets, even in mainland China.
Netflix representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The most likely targets of the new rules, which are expected to be approved by Hong Kong’s legislature this fall, are independent documentaries and fictional films that touch on protest and opposition politics.
“For those independent filmmakers who really want to do Hong Kong stories in Hong Kong, it will be very challenging,” said Mr Au, the director who moved to Canada. “They will have a lot of obstacles. It can also be dangerous.”
The documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was shot by anonymous filmmakers who chased protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University when they were Police surrounded for two weeks in 2019. In addition to the film being pulled from local theatres, Hong Kong’s Arts Development Council withdrew a $90,000 grant to Ying Ei Chi, the independent film collective that released it.
The Censorship Office initially approved the documentary for audiences over the age of 18, but now some in the film industry believe it may face a retrospective ban.
Producer of the fictional film “Ten Saal” One who examined the fear of a fading culture and freedom It strengthened resistance to China’s tighter grip on Hong Kong it says could also be targeted under the new rules. Filmmakers had difficulty finding venues when the film was released in 2015, but may now be banned altogether, said Mr Au, who directed a vignette in the five-part film.
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 foreign premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July required special precautions. It was shown at short notice near the end of the festival so that Beijing could not pressure the organizers to block it.
Mr Chow sold the film rights to a European distributor and, before returning to Hong Kong, deleted the film’s footage from his computer, fearing that he might be arrested.
Some of the subjects in the 152-minute film, including pro-democracy activists such as Benny Tai and Gwyneth Ho, are now in prison. Mr. Chow feared that he too might be arrested. Friends and family warned him to leave town, release the film anonymously, or change its title. The title is taken from the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”. described by the government As an illegal call for Hong Kong independence.
But Mr. Chow said he eventually went ahead with the film because he conceived it out of a sense of responsibility to the project, its subject and the crew.
“I must do what is right and don’t let fear overpower my beliefs,” he said.
Although he has yet to face direct retaliation, he said there are signs it could be coming.
When he participated in a short, private show called “Beyond the Dream”, a non-political romance he directed, the police raid the incident. About 40 people who attended the screening at Mr Chow and the pro-democracy district representative’s office were fined about $645 for violating social distancing rules.
“It sounds like a warning sign from the regime,” he said. “It’s not very direct. It’s still a question of whether the regime has started its work: Have I been opened?