Police attacks and censorship: Hong Kong filmmakers are fighting to stay free

The director kept an eye on the audience and ignored the police at the back of the room.

It was a private viewing of one romantic movie by Kiwi Chow. Dozens of friends had gathered in the office of a local district council to see the film and hear Chow speak. He was a politically sensitive person who had made films about Hong Kong protests and China’s crackdown about the freedoms of the city.

His new work was an apolitical story about a schizophrenic man who falls in love with a psychological counselor. Hardly a story that would provoke disagreement or violate a national security law. But the audience noted when two dozen police officers arrived. Chow continued his conversation.

By midnight, police had turned off the show and fined each participant HK $ 5000 for violating social distance rules. If the screening had included Chow’s protest documentary, they could have been fined $ 1 million and jailed for up to three years, according to a law proposed by the Hong Kong government in August.

The police raid on film screenings – inconceivable in Hong Kong a few years ago – is the latest reality in Beijing’s relentless suppression of the territory’s civil liberties. For filmmakers like Chow, 42, they are a sign of how China’s grip on Hong Kong is not just about asserting political control but also suffocating the cultural spaces where art can reflect truth and build solidarity in a society.

Hong Kong filmmaker Kiwi Chow

Hong Kong filmmaker Kiwi Chow

(Kiwi Chow)

“They’re afraid of art, of people making contacts, of organizations and groups – because basically they’re afraid of people,” Chow said. “We had a conversation about art and humanity, shared our lives and built a relationship. They’re tearing it down. ”

Much demolished and invented in Hong Kong. Textbooks have been rewritten, political novels cleared. The largest democracy newspaper has been closed, its founders imprisoned. All opposition candidates who participated in the local elections have been arrested. This month, the organizers of Hong Kong’s annual wedding were also arrested in Tiananmen Square.

A film censorship team expected soon to be approved by Hong Kong lawmakers (who have been cleared of all opposition members) would require heavy fines and imprisonment for showing unapproved films. Inspectors would have the power to go in and search any place without an order if they considered that evidence was in danger of being destroyed. Previously approved films may be banned retroactively if they are considered “contrary to national security.”

The new law would bring direct political censorship that has not been seen since the colonial era in Hong Kong. But self-censorship had crept into Hong Kong’s film industry for years. Many directors and screenwriters have become adept at navigating the censor’s requirements to gain access to the mainland Chinese market, which opened to actors and filmmakers in Hong Kong in 2003.

It provided great commercial opportunities: Chinese audiences, budgets and revenues were much larger than for productions in Hong Kong. Many filmmakers went north and eroded filmmaking in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong films released in theaters dropped from hundreds a year in the 1990s to several dozen by 2020. A growing proportion of them are co-productions with mainland Chinese companies that are careful to avoid Beijing’s disapproval.

The mass migration of film talent to mainland China has left a “vacuum” in Hong Kong, says Shu Kei, former dean of film and television at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. The new films produced with mainland partners can beat impressive ticket numbers. But their self-censorship means that an era with Hong Kong’s identity and history could be unregistered, just as the city’s independent spirit is being reworked by China’s Communist Party.

“Movies act as a social record, or even as a record of a nation,” says Shu. He loves watching Cantonese movies from the 1940s and 50s, he said, because they capture what Hong Kong was like – and what kind of people it was – at one point.

“It reminds me of my childhood. It also shows a collective memory, says Shu. The repression of films in recent years, when millions of Hong Kongers rose up in a massive protest movement that was then brutally crushed, is also an attempt to suppress collective memory and identity.

“The loss is monumental,” he said.

That deletion is already happening, even without police attacks. In recent months, cinemas have suspended 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 state funds and was evicted from the studio after the pro-Beijing media accused it of to “glorify riots.”

The few independent filmmakers who are still trying to explore Hong Kong’s social realities are grappling with whether it’s possible to continue working – or whether it’s time to leave.

Hong Kong filmmaker Mok Kwan Ling in a T-shirt says, "We have to be very strong if we want to do something very wrong."

Hong Kong filmmaker Mok Kwan Ling.

(Rachel Cheung)

Mok Kwan Ling, a former journalist who covered the 2019 protests, 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 her parents when she goes to clean up his apartment. It examines how political disagreement divides families – a well-known theme for many families in Hong Kong whose parents and children took sides during the protests.

But in June, film censorship authorities ordered Mok to change the film’s title – “Clean Up” is also slang to remove evidence of protest participation – and cut out 14 scenes, including one in which the father expresses sympathy for his son’s political actions. They also demanded that Mok add a warning that the activities in the film could constitute a crime.

Mok no longer plans to show his film in Hong Kong. She wonders if she was too naive when she shot and produced it in November last year – and if she would leave the city, even though she plans to stay for the time being.

A young woman in the dark.

A film still from Hong Kong filmmaker Mok Kwan Ling’s “Far From Home”, also called “Clean Up” in Cantonese.

(Mugg Kwan Ling)

“I did not think that the political downturn 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 reinforced his decision to run independent art films rather than commercial projects. Many directors in mainland China do the same thing – producing low-budget films that do not compromise on content but can only be shown at festivals abroad.

“We come here because we like to create art, not because it’s easy money,” Li said. “If we can not make movies freely, I would rather not make movies.”

In recent years, Hong Kong has grown a small but growing audience for stories that circumvent politics but touch on social issues such as minorities, the mentally handicapped and the disadvantaged, Li said.

“These concerns come from a general change in how we view our society … and how we participate more in social discussions,” Li said.

Hong Kong filmmaker Jun Li works with technicians on the set of his film "Driving."

Hong Kong filmmaker Jun Li on the set of his film “Drifting”.

(June Li)

Li’s debut film, “Tracey”, turned upside down in 2018 as the first Hong Kong film about trans people. His latest film, “Drifting”, tells the story of a homeless community suing the government to destroy their properties. He is not sure if such substances will soon become taboo.

Chow, the director whose screening was disrupted by the police, is under even greater pressure. In July, the Cannes Film Festival premiered a documentary that he secretly spent two years making; it takes its title, “Revolution of Our Times”, from a banned slogan from the 2019 protests. Since then, he has received threats from anonymous callers warning him to leave the city. Investors and players have withdrawn from his upcoming project.

Chow knew how risky his project was. The first person arrested under the new National Security Act had been convicted of calling for separatism and sentenced to nine years in prison for showing that slogan. But following the censorship is like “dealing with the devil,” he said. “You become complicit in an unfair system. You might as well pronounce the death of your creative life. ”

The point of filmmaking – and especially documentary filmmaking – is to capture the 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.

Although censors shut down, arrests rise and no one can see his documentary in Hong Kong, Chow made his film. It was a choice, he said, to be free.

Special correspondent Cheung reported from Hong Kong. Staff writer Su reported from Beijing.

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