For decades, Hong Kong’s movie industry has enthralled global audiences with balletic shoot-em-ups, epic martial-arts fantasies, chopsocky comedies and shadow-drenched romances. Now, under orders from Beijing, local officials will scrutinize such works with an eye toward safeguarding the People’s Republic of China.
The city’s government on Friday said it would begin blocking the distribution of films that are deemed to undermine national security, marking the official arrival of mainland Chinese-style censorship in one of Asia’s most celebrated filmmaking hubs.
The new guidelines, which apply to both domestically produced and foreign films, come as a sharp slap to the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where government-protected freedoms of expression and an irreverent local culture had imbued the city with a cultural vibrancy that set it apart from mainland megacities.
They also represent a broadening of the Chinese government’s hold on the global film industry. China’s booming box office has been irresistible to Hollywood studios. Big-budget productions go to great lengths to avoid offending Chinese audiences and Communist Party censors, while others discover the expensive way what happens when they do not.
Hong Kong’s storied movie industry is as much a pillar of its identity as its food, its soaring skyline or its financial services sector.
During its peak as a filmmaking capital in the decades after World War II, the city churned out immensely popular genre flicks and nurtured auteurs like Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui. It has minted international stars such as 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 including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and in blockbusters such as “The Matrix.”
Censorship worries have loomed large over Hong Kong’s creative industries ever since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. But concerns that once felt theoretical have become frighteningly real since Beijing enacted a national security law last year to quash the antigovernment protests that shook the city in 2019.
So while few in the local movie industry said they felt caught totally off guard by the new censorship guidelines issued Friday, they still expressed concern that the sweeping scope of the rules would affect not just which movies are screened in Hong Kong, but also how they get produced and whether they get made at all.
“How do you raise funds?” asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker who has faced problems screening his work in the city. “Can you openly crowdsource and say that this is a film about certain points of view, certain activities?”
Even feature filmmakers, he said, will be left to wonder in tense anticipation whether their movies will fall afoul of the security law. “It’s not just a matter of activist filmmaking or political filmmaking, but the overall scene of filmmaking in Hong Kong.”
The censorship directives are the latest sign of how thoroughly Hong Kong is being reshaped by Beijing’s security law, which took aim at the city’s pro-democracy protest movement but has had crushing implications for aspects of its very character.
With the blessing of the Communist government, the Hong Kong authorities have changed school curriculums, pulled books off library shelves and moved to overhaul elections. The police have arrested pro-democracy activists and politicians as well as a high-profile newspaper publisher.
And in the arts, the law has created an atmosphere of fear.
The updated rules announced Friday require Hong Kong censors considering a film for distribution to look out not only for violent, sexual and vulgar content, but also for how the film portrays acts “which may amount to an offense endangering national security.”
Anything that is “objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting” such acts is potential grounds for deeming a film unfit for exhibition, the rules now say.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censor’s verdict to a film’s content alone.
“When considering the effect of the film as a whole and its likely effect on the persons likely to view the film,” the guidelines say, “the censor should have regard to the duties to prevent and suppress act or activity endangering national security.”
A Hong Kong government statement on Friday said: “The film censorship regulatory framework is built on the premise of a balance between protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other.”
The vagueness of the new provisions is in keeping with what the security law’s critics say are its ambiguously defined offenses, which give the authorities wide latitude to target activists and critics.
Tin Kai-man, of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, told the local broadcaster TVB that the industry needed…