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(Credit: Joe LIU / Xi Jinping / Alamy)

Chinese censorship and the bleak future of Hong Kong cinema

Hong Kong has always been a vibrant centre for global cinema, with a massive output of kung-fu flicks and martial arts productions before the Hong Kong New Wave changed the industry forever. Unaffected by the strict censorship laws of mainland China due to its former status as a British colony, the Hong Kong film industry maintained a distant relationship with the Chinese government and was never subsidised by the government either. As a consequence, Hong Kong’s productions were commercial in nature until the more erudite work of the New Wave.

The Shaw Brothers studio and Bruce Lee were largely responsible for introducing Western audiences to the kung-fu genre, but after Lee’s tragic demise in 1973, the genre experienced a steep decline in quality. New filmmakers stepped up to take the revival of Hong Kong cinema into their own hands, led by pioneering figures like Tsui Hark and Ann Hui before global icons like Wong Kar-wai transformed the New Wave into a cultural phenomenon.

Unlike the previous traditions of filmmaking in Hong Kong, the New Wave auteurs weren’t just influenced by the commercialism of Hollywood. Their heroes were the experimental geniuses of the French New Wave like Jean-Luc Godard, and they tried to follow in their footsteps by highlighting their own styles. Through the use of new editing techniques, stylised visual narratives and the important move away from the restrictive studio system, the Hong Kong New Wave successfully revitalised a completely stagnant industry by reimagining the potential of the cinematic medium itself.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable decline again due to the volatile sociopolitical climate of Hong Kong and its strained ties with mainland China. While there have been laudable explorations of LGBTQ+ themes in the latest Hong Kong films like Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk (2019), most of the projects are gravitating towards the realm of formulaic commercialism all over again. Given the enormous popularity of Netflix thrillers which follow the same patterns, studios in Hong Kong are viewing derivative romantic dramas and uninspired crime thrillers as the key to success.

Considering that some of the most fiercely original filmmakers in the history of cinema came from Hong Kong, this is a tragic state of affairs that is worsened by new Chinese policy. According to Hong Kong’s commerce secretary Edward Yau, the new film censorship laws are meant to prevent “instances, acts or activities which might endorse, support, glorify, encourage and incite such activities that might endanger national security.”

Wong Kar-wai is an icon of Hong Kong cinema. (Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy)

Censorship is the antithesis to art, and the CCP is taking all the necessary measures to make sure that the rich history and future potential of Hong Kong’s film industry is not a threat to their tyranny. “The amendments this time are simple and straightforward. The aim is to consolidate our legal foundation regarding film censorship work to prevent acts against national security,” Yau explained. “Administrative decisions would still be subject to the review board, except in the circumstances where such cases involve national security – then we will disapply the power given to the board.”

Thanks to these draconian laws, new projects like the recent documentary about gay marriage in Taiwan – Taiwan Equals Love – was barred by the censorship committee because China considers Taiwan to be an extension of its jurisdiction. This is not a solitary example, with screenings for Inside the Red Brick Wall and Where the Wind Blows being cancelled alongside other politically aware films and documentaries. Hong Kong’s historical distance from the governance of the mainland will be further reduced since Hong Kong films will now undergo the same censorship processes as projects from the mainland.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the CCP has forced the relevant Hong Kong authorities to go through their film archives in order to ban old films which are considered to be subversive. “Any film for public exhibition, past, present and future, will need to get approval,” Yau said in a statement. The CCP’s intention is to quash the possibility of political awakening through art in the future as well as the systematic erasure of Hong Kong’s sacred cinematic history. If the screening of “illegal films” take place, there can be a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a staggering $130,000 fine.

If you think that’s the extent of the new dystopian future of cinema under the CCP, it’s not. China is also cracking down on the celebrity culture in the country, trying to rectify the image projected by male stars by calling them “sissy” and making foreign citizens renounce their citizenship in order to continue working in China. Singer and actress Maria Cordero is set to give up her Portuguese citizenship, claiming: “If you really want to get work in mainland China, then it’s the right thing to do. If you work there, you should take Chinese citizenship. I have no problem with that… I think they are all going to be doing this, one after another. Unless they decide that they don’t want to make that kind of money anymore.”

These same pernicious laws have already been used to arrest several pro-democracy activists in the name of national security. With these legislations, the CCP has made it painfully clear that it is not interested in the artistic development or intellectual growth of the country’s creative legacy. Instead, China is focused on constructing a regime of control where the industries act as Ideological State Apparatuses for the government with relative ease. For fans who grew up watching delightfully subversive masterpieces from Hong Kong, this signifies nothing less than the death of Hong Kong cinema once and for all.

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