HONG KONG — Director Chan Tze-woon’s latest movie explores how political struggles across generations of Hongkongers shaped their identity. Yet it has never been shown in the city where it is set — where Chan was born and raised — and a significant portion of its funding came from abroad.
Chan chose not to screen the movie in local cinemas because that would have required an official review under the city’s Film Censorship Ordinance. Against the backdrop of a 2020 security law intended to curb dissent following months of pro-democracy protests, the ordinance was amended last year to bar content that could be deemed a threat to national security.
Several Taiwanese films were recently snagged and required to delete scenes to secure the necessary permissions to be part of local film festivals. In October, censors “recommended” against an outdoor showing of “The Dark Knight.” Though they didn’t give a reason, the assumption here was that they reacted to the depiction of a corrupt Chinese businessman. The movie was pulled.
Such challenges make the nomination of “Blue Island” all the more important, Chan said, raising its visibility and sparking discussion about the dramatic upheavals Hong Kong has experienced and what its future holds.
The movie shows “the real Hong Kong, its atmosphere and how locals as well as the diaspora face such huge changes,” Chan explained. A mix of documentary and drama that follows activists of different generations as they struggle to seek and maintain their freedoms, it was a featured selection in the London, Toronto and Rotterdam film festivals and will be distributed in Taiwan in December.
“I hope the younger generation of filmmakers can feel that we are not alone, that we don’t necessarily need to pursue the commercial path and go through official censorship,” Chan said. “We can pioneer and forge our own paths in pursuit of free filmmaking.”
Two Hong Kong films were repeatedly recognized when the Golden Horse Awards were announced Saturday night in Taipei. Anthony Wong, a popular actor who supported the city’s pro-democracy protests in 2019, won as best leading actor in “The Sunny Side of the Street.” And “Limbo,” a monochromatic depiction of the city’s violent side, received multiple honors. Neither film has played in theaters in mainland China.
The awards, known as the Oscars of the Chinese-speaking world, are among the ever-more-important platforms for independent filmmakers such as Chan as they shift their focus offshore and seek new ways to fund their work and promote it to a broader audience. The organization behind the awards runs a special program to connect Chinese-speaking filmmakers with the international industry that can help support their artistic ventures. This year, 10 Hong Kong film projects are part of it.
The film community has “shown the ability to survive and thrive in the cracks,” said Kiwi Chow, who directed last year’s documentary winner, “Revolution of Our Times,” which takes its name from a now-banned protest slogan. His film also was never screened in Hong Kong.
Not that long ago, Hong Kong cinema was a point of pride. The early 1990s marked its pinnacle; thanks to many eager investors, hundreds of movies were produced annually. Stars such as Jackie Chan followed in Bruce Lee’s footsteps and reinvented martial arts for a global audience. Directors such as Wong Kar-wai captured the city’s beauty while encapsulating its identity struggle as the former British colony was transferred back to Chinese rule in 1997.
Chow said he began to reach out to independent investors and freelance actors when larger film companies with mainland affiliations cut ties. Others have chosen to do the same rather than put their artistic expression at risk. Chan, for instance, secured funding for “Blue Island” from France, South Korea and three other countries.
Not surprisingly, given the antagonistic relationship between China and Taiwan, the Golden Horse Awards themselves have provoked Beijing’s ire.
After a Taiwanese director expressed support for the self-governing island’s independence, Beijing banned mainland filmmakers from attending the 2019 ceremony. In September, an influential Hong Kong film association issued a letter asking members to boycott this weekend’s ceremony amid “intensifying geopolitical tensions.”
Some local filmmakers benefit from working with Chinese authorities. They get access under a 2003 agreement between Beijing and Hong Kong for co-production of films, which continues to provide funding and access to circumvent the mainland’s limited yearly quota for imported films.
“Most Hong Kong directors and actors are just taking part in stories based in the mainland,” said Lee Cheng-liang, assistant professor of communications at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “This cooperation is at the expense of the entire Hong Kong film industry as they transfer their skills and experience to China.”
But the appeal of the Chinese film market has weakened with the tighter censorship. As of November, only 49 foreign movies had passed scrutiny and been allowed in mainland theaters this year, the lowest number in nearly a decade.
The box office during China’s National Day holiday last month slumped over 60 percent compared with the 2021 holiday. Patriotic films, often showing Chinese officials or soldiers coming to citizens’ rescue to drum up support for the Communist Party, accounted for more than two-thirds of ticket sales.
“These films do not tell people’s stories from the perspective of individualism but of collectivism,” said Hao Jian, a professor at Beijing Film Academy. “Not presenting the real lives of the people and the society will certainly affect the audience’s enthusiasm in watching films in the long run.”
For Ren Xia, whose film “May You Stay Forever Young” was nominated for a Golden Horse Award last year, turning away from the mainland and Hong Kong markets could be a tough decision. It’s one he is willing to live with, however. In July, he helped write a joint declaration on the freedom of filmmaking, calling for creation without compromise. Dozens of filmmakers in Hong Kong, including Chan and Chow, signed it.
“Shooting films itself is risky,” Ren said last week, noting that award-winning Iranian directors such as Jafar Panahi have been put behind bars for telling the truth through their work. “If they can do it in a more dangerous situation than we are, we have no reason to be afraid.”
“For me, films are really important,” he added. “I would sacrifice my freedom to continue to shoot.”