HONG KONG —
The director kept his eyes on the audience, ignoring the cops in the back of the room.
It was a private screening by Kiwi Chow of a romance movie . A group of friends gathered at the office of the local district councilor to see the film and hear Chow speak. He was a sensitive politician who had made films about Hong Kong’s protests , and China’s crackdown upon the city’s freedoms.
His latest work was an apolitical story about a schizophrenic couple who fall in love with a counselor. It is hard to imagine a storyline that could provoke dissent or break a national security law. Two dozen police officers arrived and the audience was not surprised. Chow continued his talk, unaffected by the arrival of two dozen police officers.
By midnight, police had shut down the screening, fining each attendee HK$5,000 for violating social distancing rules. According to a Hong Kong government law, the screeners could have been punished with HK$1,000,000 and up to three years imprisonment if they had shown Chow’s documentary.
Police raids at movie screenings are a result of Beijing’s continued suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong. This was unimaginable a few years back. For filmmakers like Chow, 42, they are a sign of how China’s grip on Hong Kong is not only about asserting political control but also suffocating the cultural spaces where art can reflect truth and build solidarity in a society.
“They are afraid of art, of people making connections, of organizations and groups — because essentially, they are afraid of the people,” Chow said. Chow said, “We were having an open conversation about art and humanity. We shared our lives, built a relationship. They are tearing it down.”
Much is being torn down and reinvented in Hong Kong. Textbooks have been rewritten, political novels purged. The founder of the largest pro-democracy newspaper was arrested and shut down. All of the opposition candidates who took part in local election primaries have been detained. This month, the organizers of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Square vigil were arrested too.
A film censorship law expected to be passed soon by Hong Kong’s legislature (which has been cleared of all opposition members) would exact heavy fines and imprisonment for screening unapproved films. If they believe evidence is at risk, inspectors will be able to search any location without the need for a warrant. If deemed “contrary the interests of national security
“, films that were previously approved could be retroactively removed. The new law would allow for a direct political censorship unlike anything seen in Hong Kong since colonial times. However, self-censorship has been creeping into Hong Kong’s movie industry for many years. Many directors and screenwriters have become skilled at navigating the censor’s demands in order to gain access to the mainland Chinese market, which opened to Hong Kong actors and filmmakers in 2003. This opened up huge commercial opportunities: Chinese audiences, budgets, and revenues were significantly higher than those for Hong Kong productions. Many Hollywood moviemakers moved north, destroying Hong Kong’s filmmaking scene.
Hong Kong films released in theaters dwindled from hundreds per year in the 1990s to several dozen in 2020. Many of these films are co-productions between mainland Chinese companies, which are careful to avoid Beijing’s disapproval.
The mass migration of film talent from Hong Kong to China has created a vacuum in Hong Kong, according to Shu Kei (ex-dean of film and television at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts). These new films, which were produced in collaboration with mainland partners, could be a big hit at the box office. Their self-censorship could mean that an era in Hong Kong history and identity is not recorded. This comes as China’s Communist Party is trying to recast the city’s independent spirit.
“Films serve as a social record, or even a record of a nation,” said Shu. He loves watching Cantonese films from the 1940s and ’50s, he said, because they capture how Hong Kong was — and who its people were — at a moment in time. It reminds me of childhood. Shu stated that it also shows a collective memory. Films about the past few years when millions of Hong Kongers protested were suppressed is another attempt to erase that collective memory and identity.
” The loss is immense,” he stated. This erasure is already taking place, even without any police raids. In recent months, cinemas have canceled screenings of “Inside the Brick Wall,” a documentary about a police siege against protesters at a university in 2019. The film’s distributor, Ying E Chi, lost government funding and was evicted from its studio after pro-Beijing media accused it of “glorifying riots.”
The few independent filmmakers still trying to explore Hong Kong’s social realities are wrestling with whether it’s possible to continue working — or if it’s time to leave.
Mok Kwan Ling, a former journalist who covered the protests in 2019, was recently asked to censor her first fictional project, a short film about a young woman whose boyfriend is arrested during protests and who then confronts his parents when she goes to clean up his apartment. It examines the effects of political disagreement on families, a common theme in Hong Kong for parents and children who took sides during protests.
But in June, the Film Censorship Authority ordered Mok to change the film’s title — “Clean Up” is also slang for removing evidence of protest participation — and cut out 14 scenes, including one where the father expresses sympathy with his son’s political actions. Mok was also asked to warn that the film’s activities could be considered a crime.
Mok has decided not to screen her film here. She is unsure if she was too young when she produced the film last November.
“I didn’t think the political decline would be so rapid, that something so mild could become controversial in less than a year,” she said. “I was too optimistic about Hong Kong.”
Director Jun Li, 30, said the new censorship rules solidified his decision to pursue independent art films rather than commercial projects. Many mainland Chinese directors do the same thing: they make low-budget films that aren’t compromised on content, but can only screen at festivals overseas.
” We come here to make art and not for the easy money.” Li stated. “If we cannot make films freely, I would rather not make films.”
In recent years, Hong Kong has cultivated a small but growing audience for stories that sidestep politics but touch on social issues such as minorities, mental disabilities and the disadvantaged, Li said.
“Those concerns come from a general change in how we look at our society … and how we participate more in social discussions,” Li said.
Li’s debut feature film, “Tracey,” turned heads in 2018 as the first Hong Kong film on transgender issues. His latest film, “Drifting,” is about a homeless group that sues the government for destroying their property. It’s unclear if these topics will become taboo.
Chow, the director whose screening had to be halted by police officers, is now under more pressure. In July, the Cannes Film Festival premiered a documentary he’d secretly spent two years making; it takes its title, “Revolution of Our Times,” from a banned slogan from the 2019 protests. He has been threatened by anonymous callers since then, warning him to flee the city. Actors and investors have already pulled out of his projects.
Chow was aware of the risks involved in his project. The first person arrested under the new national security law had been convicted of inciting separatism and sentenced to nine years in jail for displaying that slogan. He said that complying with censorship was like “dealing the devil.” You become complicit in an unjust system. You might as well pronounce the death of your creative life.”
The point of filmmaking — and especially documentary film — is to capture truth, Chow said.
“Facing a government that tells lies after lies, an entire society living under lies … I want to tell honest stories,” Chow said.
Chow still made his film, despite the fact that Hong Kong was closing in on him, there were increasing arrests and nobody able to view his documentary. He said it was his choice to be free.
Special correspondent Cheung reported from Hong Kong. Staff writer Su reported from Beijing.