Hong Kong’s film industry has fascinated audiences worldwide for decades, with shootouts that seem choreographed, epic martial arts fantasies, kung fu comedies, and shadow-infused romances. From now on, by order of Beijing, the local authorities will begin to comb these productions with a fine comb in order to protect the People’s Republic of China.
The city government announced on Friday that it will begin blocking the distribution of films suspected of harming national security, signaling the official arrival of Chinese-style censorship at one of the film production centers. the most famous of the city of Asia.
The new guidelines, which apply to both foreign films and domestic productions, will throw a bucket of cold water on the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where government-protected free speech and irreverent local culture had imbued the city with a dynamism that differentiates it. megalopolises of mainland China.
The measures also extend the Chinese government’s influence over the global film industry. The huge and growing Chinese box office has been irresistible to Hollywood studios. Big budget productions take great care to avoid offending Chinese audiences and Communist Party censors. Others pay a high price when they don’t.
Hong Kong’s renowned film industry is as important a pillar of the city’s identity as its food, urban skyscrapers, and financial services industry.
In its heyday as the capital of cinema in the decades following World War II, Hong Kong produced hugely popular genre films and nurtured such singular directors as Wong Kar-wai and Anne Hui. He launched international stars like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Tony Leung. The influence of Hong Kong cinema can be seen in the work of Hollywood directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese and in blockbusters like “The Matrix”.
Concerns about censorship have weighed heavily on Hong Kong’s creative industries since the former British colony returned to China in 1997. But concerns that once seemed only theoretical have taken on a haunting character since Beijing enacted the a national security law last year to crack down on government anti-protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.
So while few in the local film industry were taken completely by surprise by the new censorship guidelines released on Friday, they always said they were concerned that the broad scope of the new rules would not only affect films screened in. Hong Kong, but the way the cinema is in the city and, in fact, whether films will continue to be produced.
“How do I get funding?” Asked director Evans Chan, who struggled to show his work in the city. “Can we openly look for crowdfunding and say that it is a film about certain points of view, certain activities?”
Even traditional feature film makers, Chan said, will have to wait, in tense suspense, to see if their films fall under the safety law. “It’s not just about activist and political films, it’s about the whole film production scene in Hong Kong,” he said.
The updated rules announced on Friday provide that Hong Kong censors, when evaluating a film for authorization for distribution, be aware not only of the violent, sexual or filthy content, but also of how the film portrays acts ” which may constitute a crime that endangers national security ”.
The rules now state that anything “objectively and reasonably capable of being regarded as an endorsement, support, promotion, glorification, encouragement or incitement” to such acts is a potential justification for the film to be considered inappropriate to be screened.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censor’s verdict to the content of a film alone.
“When the censor assesses the effect of the film as a whole and its likely effect on those likely to watch the film,” say the new rules, “he should be aware of his duty to prevent and suppress acts or activities that pose security in danger ”.
A statement issued by the Hong Kong government on Friday said: “The regulatory framework for film censorship rests on the premise of a balance between the protection of individual rights and freedoms, on the one hand, and the protection of the legitimate interests of society, on the other hand. “.
The announced new censorship guidelines appear to be aimed in part at a specific type of film. Under the rules, censors must pay particular attention to any film “which purports to be a documentary” or which depicts “actual events directly related to the circumstances in Hong Kong.”
Because? “Local audiences may react more strongly to the content of the film.”
Censors, according to the guidelines, “must carefully consider whether the film contains biased, unverified, false or misleading accounts or comments.”
It is nothing new that mainland China is limiting the number of films made outside of China that can be shown in local theaters. But Hong Kong has always functioned to a large extent like any other film market in the world, with movie theater owners showing off any production that might sell well.
So the expansion of censorship in the city could end up wiping out a small but significant chunk of the international Hollywood film box office.
Translation by Clara Allain