Hong Kong lawmakers passed an amendment to the Film Censorship Bill Wednesday that will allow authorities to ban films past or present that are seen as a threat to national security.
People found guilty of producing such films can land punishments of up to three years in jail and a fine of $128,000.
Back in June, the Hong Kong government first announced proposed amendments to the territory’s film ordinance law. Filmmakers, both local and overseas, told VOA that the action would stifle the movie industry.
But at Wednesday’s meeting of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council – the city’s mini-parliament – as the bill was passed, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a pro-Beijing lawmaker said, “No society in the world welcomes forces that encourage young people to break the law, harbor hatred against their own countries and embrace terrorism," The South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
The Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers had previously stated it was “worried” by the new law, but when contacted by VOA had no further comment.
Christopher Ling, a commercial director and filmmaker in Hong Kong, told VOA earlier this year that the law has raised concern in the industry.
“For films that don’t care about the Chinese market, most Hong Kong features have a lot of freedom to voice out what the director wants to talk about.”
“After the law, [that] seems like that won’t be the case anymore. And the scariest part is that it’s up to the government to say what’s alright and what’s not, there’s no clear indication of what can be said and what not,” he said.
Ling said films considered politically sensitive will be affected in other ways, even if they are not screened in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong movies aside, I’m also worried that a lot of films can’t be imported and distributed in Hong Kong from now on. Not even big production movies should be worried, even the independent short films…filmmakers should also be worried that the law might be affecting them,” he added.
But Kenny Kwok Kwan Ng, Associate Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University Academy of Film, told VOA that the law will likely target independent productions more than commercial, big-budget films.
“The main impact may fall on documentaries. Particularly in the past few years or the past decade, there has been a rise in documentaries, not commercially, more independently made, [and] also recording social events, social crises.”
"These kinds of movies are more prone to the censorship law because if they record the events, things that deemed by the government as risky or undesirable or endangering social harmonies, social security – these things will probably have been prohibited for showing in the public,” Ng told VOA in a phone call.
As for commercial productions, Ng said if they have value, there is still room to produce movies based on governmental issues in society. Ng pointed to the recently released Raging Fire, a Hong Kong-Chinese action movie that focuses on a good cop, bad cop scenario. The movie has so far grossed over $213 million worldwide.
“You have the leeway to talk about how the bad cop turned corrupt, what kind of social institutional problems he’s facing. Maybe that’s the way these cop genres can deal with it. In the near future will this space be even more limited? We don’t know. It has to be tested case by case. It depends on each films response, that’s why I think filmmakers are still figuring out and testing the waters,” he added.
Ng said he is trying to be optimistic about the censorship law because it encourages new filmmakers to be more creative when making independent movies.
“It really depends on the young filmmakers, their creativity, if they are willing to go around and to see other ways of storytelling – I think this is a challenge for them and hope they take up the challenge,” he added.
But with the censor law in place, Ng said filmmakers are already looking at alternative channels to showcase their productions and get around censors.
“People have also begun talking about alternative channels, rather than beyond conventional cinema houses, like streamlining, social media. It will be a kind of struggle between the players and the government,” Ng added.
Hong Kong has already seen examples of censorship in the film industry.
In March, a local cinema canceled the screening of the award-winning documentary Inside the Red Brick Wall. The documentary focused on the clashes between protesters and police at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University in November 2019 that lasted nearly two weeks.
The same month, Hong Kong’s largest TV network, Television Broadcast Ltd, known as TVB, canceled its broadcast of the Academy Awards for the first time in over 50 years, citing “commercial reasons.” The decision came as China requested media to lessen the coverage of the awards after Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer’s documentary Do Not Split received an Oscar nomination. The documentary also focused on Hong Kong’s much-publicized anti-government demonstrations.
And organizers of the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival in Hong Kong canceled the screening of Far From Home, a short political film that also focused on political unrest two years ago.
China’s government has been targeting the entertainment sector of late. Its crackdown has seen new government controls for broadcasters on beauty standards, and to curb “effeminate male celebrities.” The government has also been displeased with the political views of Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao, who subsequently won the best director award for her movie Nomadland.
Since Beijing enacted a national security law in Hong Kong last year, books judged to be sensitive to the law have been removed from libraries and schools. In June, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close after its executives were arrested under the security law. Among other things, the law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted.