In 1988, Hong Kong passed a Film Censorship Ordinance that updated previous guidelines governing film exhibition in the British-controlled territory. The law created a Film Censorship Authority, and was aimed at regulating the film exhibition process by establishing censorship guidelines and codifying offenses and review processes. Many countries have film censorship processes, including the United States from 1930 until 1968, when the Motion Picture Production Code was replaced by a voluntary film rating system (which nonetheless can at times impose de facto censorship when exhibitors refuse to show unrated films).
But this week, Hong Kong’s government published amendments to its Film Censorship Ordinance that “seek to provide censors with clearer guidelines on film examination and classification following the implementation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the National Security Law).”
The amendments were as vague – presumably by design – as the text of the National Security Law passed earlier this year, providing the government with maximum latitude to “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys”.
The main thrust of the new text says: “The censor should be vigilant to the portrayal, depiction or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security, or which may otherwise jeopardise the safeguarding of national security by the HKSAR, and any content of a film which is objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting such act or activity.”
What does this mean? As is usual in these cases, it means, “We will decide.”
What does this mean for the Hong Kong film industry? It means the process of producing films in Hong Kong will closely resemble that in mainland China, where not only does China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) carefully censor films, especially for content that may be judged political, but also producers, directors and writers must self-censor, if they are to have any hope of raising funds to create films that will pass the censorship process.
I wrote about this last month, when China-born Chloé Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director (and Best Picture) for Nomadland, and mainland Chinese media were under instructions to refrain from celebrating the ascent of a native daughter to the pinnacle of the movie business. Zhao was “canceled” by the Chinese government in February, when it was discovered that in 2013 in an interview with an American film magazine that she had criticized China as a place “where there are lies everywhere.”
We know from Wikileaks that in 2007 future Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down to dinner with American ambassador Clark Randt Jr. and talked about movies, criticizing director Zhang Yimou for focusing too much on “bad things in imperial palaces”. “Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote,” Mr. Xi said to Ambassador Randt. Since then, Zhang Yimou has fallen afoul of Chinese officialdom more than once, and although you may disagree, I don’t think his recent work is anywhere near as powerful as the films he directed earlier in his career.
The effect of Hong Kong’s updated Film Censorship Ordinance on Hollywood filmmakers will be minimal; Hong Kong is a tiny market and Hollywood’s big players are already censoring their films for the mainland China market.
But for Hong Kong’s domestic film industry, which has given the world decades of terrific films and produced dozens of wonderful actors and directors (and fight choreographers!), the new regulations are a disaster. Hong Kong producers, directors and writers already had to censor themselves if they hoped to release their work in mainland China, but now they will have to do so even if they had planned only to release locally in Hong Kong.
In addition, the amended law will presumably cast a chill on local production; if a film that is deemed to “jeopardise the safeguarding of national security” has been produced and shot in Hong Kong, it’s easy to imagine the government issuing arrest warrants for locally resident writers, producers and members of the production crew. This means producers will have difficulty raising funds for anything but the most insipid productions (who wants to invest in a film that will be refused distribution?), and it means directors will make creative choices that are in part influenced by what they think censors may not like.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to organize a handful of film production and screenwriting workshops in Beijing and Shanghai for the heads of the Chinese film studios and some of their most accomplished screenwriters. In between workshops and in the bar later, several screenwriters told me privately they felt badly constrained by the mainland censorship system and admitted that they self-censored throughout the creative and production processes. I heard the same from several studio heads who had been directors earlier in their careers.
The Hong Kong movie industry has inspired generations of filmmakers around the world, first with the kung fu movies of the 1970s and 1980s, then with gritty action films during the 1990s and 2000s. In recent years the industry has been a quieter presence, and many Hong Kong films have been co-productions backed by mainland investors, but perhaps the Hong Kong government’s update of the Film Censorship Ordinance provides filmmakers with an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
If I were a Hong Kong-based film producer or writer, I would be thinking seriously about moving to Taiwan or California or the U.K., to spend the rest of my career making films aimed at the Chinese diaspora, an audience that numbers over 50 million.