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Hong Kong security law

Hong Kong film censorship bill takes page from mainland script

Amendment up for debate on Wednesday would add to national security law pressure

A shot from the Hong Kong protest documentary "Revolution of Our Times": The film's director says no cinema in the city will be willing to show it. (Image courtesy of "Revolution of Our Times" team)

HONG KONG -- A film censorship amendment due for debate in Hong Kong's legislature on Wednesday is poised to further squeeze local artists already feeling the pressure from the Beijing-imposed national security law.

The bill, submitted by the government, would alter the existing film censorship law to establish a new mechanism to prohibit films "that would be contrary to the interests of national security," according to the legislation's preamble. Its passage would continue rolling back freedoms that once helped the city earn the nickname "Hollywood of the Far East," creating a censorship environment ever closer to that on the mainland.

As it is, many Hong Kong filmmakers are simply giving up on screening movies with controversial themes.

Mok Kwan-ling, a director and video journalist, told Nikkei Asia that she has no chance of publicly showing her latest film featuring a young couple who met during the protests that swept the city in 2019. She rejected the government censor's demands in June to make 14 cuts as well as change the title "Jap-uk" -- which literally means to "tidy up the house" in Cantonese. The name comes from a scene where the girl rushes to her boyfriend's house to clean up after he is arrested, before the police can search his room. The official English title is "Far From Home."

Mok is not resubmitting the film to the censor and has "no plans to publicly play it in Hong Kong for the time being," she said, even though it was shortlisted as the best short film in an annual local movie festival for young filmmakers this summer. "It is extremely regrettable," she said. She added that running it online would not be viable either, due to "changes in the current political situation," though she is looking for a chance to screen it abroad.

Mok Kwan-ling was ordered to make 14 cuts and change the Cantonese title of her film "Far From Home." (Photo courtesy of Mok Kwan-ling) 

Now Mok and other filmmakers may soon face an even more difficult environment. The legal amendment would make subtle but important changes to a 1999 law originally intended as a safeguard against vulgarity and indecency, such as pornography and excessive violence.

If passed, the bill would allow for revoking certificates issued to films in the past, if they are deemed to be contrary to the national security law. It would also push authority over film censorship up the chain of command. Rather than the secretary for commerce and economic development, final decisions would fall to the city's No. 2 official, the chief secretary. The role, which includes a seat on the national security committee, is currently filled by former policeman John Lee.

Then there are provisions to empower film inspectors to take stronger action to stop screenings. Officials would be allowed to enter and search any premises without a warrant if there is a "risk of destruction or loss of relevant evidence or materials."

Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow, who startled the city by premiering his protest documentary "Revolution of Our Times" at France's Cannes Festival in July, sees the writing on the wall.

"The amendment of the film censorship bill has clearly shown that 'Revolution of Our Times' will not be granted the approval to show in Hong Kong," he told Nikkei on Monday. "No cinema in the city will be willing to show the documentary."

Often, self-censorship is doing the work of the authorities.

The 2015 film "Ten Years" -- a dystopian collection of five short stories, including one directed by Chow, set against a backdrop of diminishing human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong as Beijing's influence increases -- was a surprise hit and was shown in major cinemas in the city. It even won best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year. But since state-owned media attacked it, commercial cinemas have refused to show it.

Kiwi Chow, director of "Revolution of Our Times," also made "Self-Immolator" -- part of the controversial 2015 movie "Ten Years." (Photo by Stella Wong)

The imposition of the national security law has only created higher obstacles. The screening of another documentary focusing on the 2019 protest at Polytechnic University, "Inside the Red Brick Wall," was canceled only hours before the scheduled time, even though the local censor had given a green light. The organizer, Golden Scene Cinema, decided to withdraw after pro-Beijing media raised the possibility of the film breaching the new law.

"Now, the new amendment of the law will turn self-censorship into official censorship," Chow said. "In the foreseeable future, only movies screened by authorities can be released in Hong Kong cinemas."

The stricter controls are not helping an industry that once produced over 200 films a year but has faced stiff competition within China and key markets like Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Chow said the vast majority of locally produced films are losing money, even the most popular ones. Increased uncertainty over the chances of showing films in cinemas could make it harder to line up financing.

"Hong Kong's film industry is already in danger," he said. "Now the authorities are adding one more stab."

According to the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, the box office for local films peaked at 1.24 billion Hong Kong dollars ($159 million) in 1992. The figure for 2015 was less than a third of that, at HK$384 million.

Kenny Ng, associate professor at Baptist University's Academy of Film, said the amendment is a step backward to the regulation of the 1980s. He explained that political censorship rules were abolished in 1995 under British rule. The city then enjoyed decades of freedom to make movies about all topics. He said that although political films only comprise a small portion of local films, rescinding this freedom will deal a serious blow to the development of Hong Kong as an arts and culture hub.

"Self-reflection, experimental and critical spirits are very important values for arts and culture," Ng said. "If the opposition voices and spaces for thinking are allowed in the arts scene, the place can truly be a mature and open city or country. Only in this way can it be a true arts and cultural hub."

To mitigate risks, Chow sold the copyright of "Revolution of Our Times" to an entity overseas. All the raw footage and videos in Hong Kong were destroyed, but he invited lawyers to watch the documentary so they will know what it is about if they have to defend him. At the same time, he believes it is necessary to release the film abroad as a record of the 2019 movement.

"The entire Hong Kong is telling a lie," he said. "The entire Hong Kong is distorting history. Even the participants are in a self-denial stage as everyone avoids talking about it. This is scary. Memories will fade with time. Under the suppression, our past feelings will also turn illusory. So, there is a need for us to have documentaries."

But he said filmmakers will now have to consider politics first. "This shows what we are facing in Hong Kong right now. Every move and word involves politics. Nothing can escape from politics because the regime infiltrates all industries and professions in Hong Kong."

Nevertheless, he vowed to continue working, even if it means releasing films overseas or not shooting his scripts at all. "After all, my mind is still free. I will continue writing my scripts."

Mok echoed Chow's concern that the arbitrary nature of censorship will stifle creativity. Even when a film is not about social issues, the new rules create uncertainty over where the limits are. "Let's say we don't have films featuring social issues," she said. "Where would the red line be then?"

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