How China stifled Hong Kong cinema

The release of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the iconic thriller of the peninsula’s cinema, allows us to return to the dramatic situation in which the local film industry finds itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong was the “Hollywood of the Far East”. movies like crime syndicate Where Blade and directors like John Woo or Tsui Hark are renowned the world over for their visual ingenuity and creative freedom. This golden age is over. Passed under the Chinese yoke, Hong Kong and its cinema is now completely muzzled.

Since the creation of a committee responsible for screening all films in June 2021, Chinese authorities have been able to censor any work that threatens national security. All films that openly criticize the Chinese Communist Party, “or contradict the latter’s vision of history,” are targeted, explains Arnaud Lanuk, a Hong Kong film journalist and specialist.

In Hong Kong, showing a banned film is punishable by three years in prison and/or a fine of one million Hong Kong dollars. [environ 100.000 euros d’amende, NDLR]. While co-productions with mainland China, already subject to Chinese censorship standards, are not affected by the new law, pure Hong Kong productions.

Ten years (2015), a dystopia about Hong Kong in 2025 should be banned, as should Chung In Street 1 (2018), “which draws a parallel between the 2014 umbrella revolution and the 1967 left-wing riots,” Arnaud Lanuk elaborates. Recent Piglet Piglet Lin Tsung Yen on Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and Cell Choi Wing Chau, an animated short film against totalitarianism, is also being targeted by censors, as are Revolution of our timedocumentary about the 2019 protests.

It is directed by Kiwi Chow, who also worked on Ten years, sold his copyrights to protect himself, and shipped all of his documentary footage overseas. Its employees preferred to remain anonymous. It became hard for him to work: some investors and actors preferred to refuse to participate in his productions, even apolitical ones. Police recently raided a screening of one of his romantic comedies. Legacy is also intended:

“It’s more vague about older works like Ball in the head Where underground express (movies with more or less direct references to Tiananmen Square),” points out Arnaud Lanuk.Ball in the head was screened in 2021 at the HK Film Archive (equivalent to Cinémathèque Française), but this is subject to change.

Even more surprisingly, “Category III”, transgressive films banned for those under 18, “have the potential to go unnoticed (although films such as Daughter of darknessmaking fun of the Chinese police could indeed be banned),” says Arnaud Lanuk.

“Many countries have censorship laws,” says Andrew Lau. co-directorhellish deeds (released in French cinemas on March 16), now signing propaganda pieces in China such as The basis of the army (for the glory of the People’s Liberation Army) or Chinese doctors (about the anti-Covid party in Wuhan). “I think it’s all about how you solve problems. There is so much you can do.”

In the private sector, some actors in the peninsula are less shy. “I know a screenwriter who told me ‘Hong Kong is dead’,” points out Frederic Ambroisin, another specialist in Hong Kong cinema. “It was a little shocking to hear that from someone who works in this industry.” The Hong Kong Filmmakers Federation also recently shared its “concern” with a trade magazine. diversity. “Most of all, we are afraid that we will be outlaws.”

A few directors such as Tsui Hark were able to adapt to the system. Major figure in Hong Kong, now he signs blockbustersDetective Dee) who appeal to China and are critical of the country, for those who can read between the lines. Same with Stephen Chow. Star Lethal football quit acting and occasionally devotes himself to directing. He recently signed Mermaid (2016), one of the biggest successes of Chinese cinema.

Not everyone follows this path. After fifteen years in Hollywood, John Woo returned to China in the 2010s to sign two nationalist blockbusters (three kingdoms, intersection). He has since filmed in Japan (hunting), and is currently filming another one in Mexico with Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Another leading filmmaker, Johnny To, is semi-retired. His productions, often openly critical of China, cannot be edited in the current context.

Some directors, however, manage to do both, alternating between blockbusters harmless in China and darker thrillers filmed in Hong Kong. Wilson Yip is a hit in China thanks to a remake of a classic. chinese ghost story or with his Ip Man, then they will shoot more personal thrillers in Hong Kong, about police corruption. Herman Yau uses a similar method and exits between two parts of the license to act. shock wave prostitution drama.

But many refuse to work in China and prefer to leave the peninsula, says Arno Lanuk: “This is the case of Edmond Pang (Love in a puff, People all of a sudden in black…) went to Canada, Derek Chiu (Chung In Street 1) in England or Stephen Shiu (writer/producer Long arm of the law or recent Sex and Zen). Comic Chapman To (present in hellish deeds) also moved to Taiwan.”

Trilogy hellish deeds (2002-2003) is not affected by censorship, but today it would be impossible to produce. The cult thriller that inspired Martin Scorsese’s American remake, The Last Last Stand of a Hong Kong Cinema Not Yet Digested by China, testifies to a “overtly commercial and popular genre of cinema, but done with quality and with a certain freedom of perception.” tone,” analyzes Arno Lanuk.

hellish deeds, worn by two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Andy Lau and Tony Leung, was itself conceived in a complex context. “Hong Kong just went through a financial crisis that cut film funding,” recalls Andrew Lau. “I remember we were also very worried about piracy, at that time making films was considered risky. hellish deedswho had a big budget was a colossal risk.”

For many critics hellish deeds however, it is much more. Through his two mole characters, he symbolizes the schizophrenia of a peninsula torn between its British heritage and pressure from China. Andrew Lau dismisses this interpretation, favoring the Buddhist overtones of his work: “I only thought about it during filming and editing.”

However, for Arnaud Lanuk, the idea of ​​schizophrenia remains relevant: “Hong Kong cinema has been able to make the most of this theme in major works such as City on fire Where heavy dutybecause Hong Kongers deeply doubt their identity. hellish deeds adds a layer through the character of Andy Lau”.

With the new censorship law, the CCP intends to control the memory and imagination of Chinese and Hong Kong youth. Thanks in particular to co-productions such as Ip Man, a biopic about kung fu master Ip Man with Donnie Yen. “This is a selective revision based partly on reality and partly on the Chinese ideology and political climate that is being proposed,” explains Arnaud Lanuk:

Ip Man [développe] a vision inherited from the 1970s, when the Japanese were portrayed as cruel and arrogant adversaries. [Une vision] suits the political climate [actuel en Chine]. But nothing is said about the membership of the Wing Chun master in the Kuomintang, the rival of the CCP during the Chinese civil war, and that his move to Hong Kong is connected with the victory of the latter.

Spectrum Films, which distributes many Hong Kong films in France, plays an important role in preserving this memory. Antoine Guerin, the head of the label, does not say that “at the moment there are no significant changes in the way we work, except for a slow exchange due to sanitary conditions in southern China and Hong Kong.” He had no problems with the rights holders, with the exception of one of the thriller sequels. USP, of which he received a censored version. “That’s because the rights have changed from a Hong Kong company to a Chinese structure.”

“Ten minutes less,” says Frederic Ambroisin. “It was ideological censorship. The film features a Buddhist character who advocates for world peace. At first glance, this is harmless. But in the Chinese version, it was censored. Be careful with the films that publishers buy.”

Antoine Guerin is aware of the importance of his work, allowing the restoration of nuggets in 4K. “This is not a mission,” he clarifies, “but if we want to trace the history of this cinema made in Hong Kong, it seems to me necessary to do this work before it is too late. The future is uncertain.” …” By the end of the year, a dozen Hong Kong films will be released on Spectrum Film, including several titles from the Shaw brothers, Tsui Hark’s epic. seven swords as well as God of Gamblersaction comedy starring Chow Yun-Fat and Andy Lau.

Banned films “theoretically” can be sold abroad. But if their creators are still in Hong Kong, they are subjecting themselves to prosecution,” warns Arnaud Lanuk: “Given the way the national security law is being used, it is unlikely that the authorities will turn a blind eye to this. For older films, copyright holders may also be subject to legal action if they distribute works that violate this principle.

The future of the peninsula’s film industry is not very bright. It largely depends on co-production with China. The paradigm shift that Infernal Affairs III, partially financed in China, was predictable. Chinese soft power has had an effect. Recently, such joint projects as Battle of Lake Changjin, raging fire Where Shockwave 2 were a hit at the Hong Kong box office, “whereas they generally perform poorly in the city,” Arnaud Lanuk elaborates.

The thriller hasn’t said its last word yet. Taken in 2017 Limbo, a dark thriller considered one of the best Hong Kong films of recent years, is finally out on the peninsula. “It feels like a revival of the type of thriller that fans have long dreamed of seeing again,” Frédéric Ambroisin rejoices.

“Resilient by nature,” Hong Kongers will continue to turn to “very local topics, even if their wiggle room in terms of self-expression shrinks even further,” says Arnaud Lanuk. By all accounts, the pandemic remains the biggest challenge: “The overall health of Hong Kong cinema is more affected by the health crisis than the political crisis,” the expert concludes.

Andrew Lau is optimistic: “The future is always difficult to predict, but I want to be patient. There have been many events that give me hope that when the pandemic is behind us, things will get better and people will recover. Make films.”

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