Hong Kong filmmakers take their movies overseas in bid to evade censorship at home

Directors cite growing pressure on actors, studios and venues to forestall any criticism of the government
By Amelia Loi for RFA Cantonese
Hong Kong filmmakers take their movies overseas in bid to evade censorship at home Hong Kong film director Kiwi Chow is one of the few directors who still calls Hong Kong home, despite having his film "Revolution of Our Times" banned from public screenings.
Credit: Reuters file photo

Faced with ever-widening censorship at home, Hong Kong filmmakers are increasingly taking their creativity to an international audience, showing an uncut version of their city beyond the reach of a security law criminalizing criticism of the authorities.

"Toeing red lines has never been easy, and less so as they become increasingly vague, bordering on nonexistence," according to the organizers of Hong Kong Film Festival U.K., which screened films by a number of directors who have run afoul of the authorities amid a citywide crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.

The festival program included a series of five short films "reimagining the city in a dark and dangerous light ... cast in the shadows of the anti-extradition protests and of the pandemic," as well as work by director Kiwi Chow, one of the few directors who still calls Hong Kong home, despite having his film "Revolution of Our Times" banned from public screenings.

Film censorship had already been seen in the city even before the 2019 protest movement erupted in response to its vanishing freedoms, with movie theaters in Hong Kong suddenly dropping the dystopian short-film compilation "10 Years" as early as 2016.

Since the national security law took effect on July 1, 2020, many more creative offerings have fallen victim to political censorship, including a rap track by Hong Kong artist JB cursing the city's police force for its treatment of protesters in 2019, and Chow's film about the protest movement, which was screened instead at Cannes in 2021.

Obstacles and barriers

Chow told festival-goers in London on March 31 that he has faced barriers to funding, as well as to hiring actors and booking locations in Hong Kong since he made “Revolution of Our Times,” with actors' agencies refusing to do business with him and major film studios closing their doors to his work.

Location bookings were also affected, with venue owners wanting assurances that the finished film "won't violate the national security law," he said, adding that actors are increasingly being asked to sign promises that they won't take work that violates the law, which criminalizes peaceful political opposition and public dissent.

The cast and crew work on the Hong Kong independent film "10 Years." Credit: Jevons Au

"One actor tried to protest against this, because they wanted to take part in my film, but his previous co-producer knew he was considering my project and threatened him, saying he would cut all of his scenes from a movie they had shot together," Chow told the forum, titled "Hong Kong's Deteriorating Artistic Freedom."

"So he wound up not being in my movie," he said.

Asked if there is any creative freedom left in Hong Kong, Chow replies: "It's already lost, of course," he said. "Will it get worse? It's hard for me to predict, but the loss has definitely already happened."

"It used to be so free, maybe more so than a lot of Western countries,” Chow said, “but now it has gone back 20 years.”

He appears undeterred, however, and his international success continues despite the restrictions back home.

His segment, "Self-Immolation," from "10 Years" (2015) won the Best Film award at the Hong Kong Film Awards, while "Revolution of Our Times" was invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Documentary award at the 58th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.

Chilling effect on creativity

Meanwhile, film music arranger Adrian Chow said musicians and singers have also been targeted for political censorship, with event organizers required to answer a slew of questions and guarantee that no anti-government content would be performed before being granted a temporary entertainment license by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

Officials wanted to know how organizers would respond if audience members started chanting banned slogans or engaging in "other behavior detrimental to national security," and whether they would cooperate with police if they did, he told the forum.

Such requirements have a chilling effect on creative freedom, Adrian Chow said.

"The government quite openly seeks to influence creative performances and activities, and will make trouble for event organizers, so they will remember not to book politically sensitive performers in future," he said. 

A screenshot from the website for the Hong Kong Film Festival UK. Credit: RFA

"They want to sow fear, so people believe that the government really will take action, and even involve the national security police," Adrian Chow said. "In this way, creative freedom is affected by self-censorship."

Fellow director Lam Sun, who continues to make films about Hong Kong from the U.K., agreed, saying the fear has also recently spread to sports associations, who are being targeted after organizers played out the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong in error at recent international fixtures, instead of China's national anthem, the March of the Volunteers.

"Hong Kong teachers also have to watch out for potential complaints about their teaching materials," said Lam, whose first solo feature film "The Narrow Road", received the Best Original Film Music at Golden Horse Awards 2022, and the Best Director and Best Actor awards at the 29th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, along with 10 nominations in the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards.

Everyone in Hong Kong has to consider how to face up to this rule of fear, faced with "vaguely defined red lines," he said.

Kiwi Chow called on Hong Kong’s creative workers to be tenacious in holding onto their artistic vitality and inner freedom.

"I personally don't care whether the environment I'm in is free or not," he said. "There is still freedom in the struggles that take place in the inner world of a creative person, so I don't focus on the external loss of freedom, but on myself."

"I think Hong Kong filmmakers have very strong vitality, and if they think their movie won't get past the censors, they will take it overseas," he said. "Creativity is about taking risks."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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