The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Winnie the Pooh horror film was pulled in Hong Kong. No one will explain why.

Screenings of a horror movie featuring the children's book character once likened to Chinese President Xi Jinping have been canceled in Hong Kong. ((ITN Studios/Jagged Edge Productions via AP))
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Cinemas in Hong Kong have canceled screenings of a slasher film starring Winnie the Pooh, the film’s distributor said in a Facebook post Tuesday, prompting concern about censorship and China’s increasing sway in the region.

Internet users have long used Winnie the Pooh as a meme to poke fun at Chinese President Xi Jinping, leading censors in mainland China to target the beloved children’s book character. Content featuring Pooh had previously been commonplace in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that has faced crackdowns on dissent and freedom of expression in recent years.

“Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” which released in the United States in February and critics widely panned, had been scheduled to debut in dozens of theaters across Hong Kong on Thursday, but plans changed abruptly, Rhys Frake-Waterfield, the film’s director, said. In an Instagram story, Frake-Waterfield wrote that 30-plus screenings were planned, but “Then ‘something’ seems to [have] caused all these independent chains dropping out!”

Distribution company VII Pillars Entertainment said it is “incredibly sorry for the disappointment and inconvenience” and told Reuters it did not know the reason for the cancellations. Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration said in a statement that it had approved the film and that arrangements to screen films “are the commercial decisions of the cinemas concerned, and OFNAA would not comment on such arrangements.”

Moviematic, the organizer of a prerelease screening of the film, attributed the cancellation to “technical reasons” in a post on social media. Several theaters involved in the screenings did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The cancellations echo broader tensions between Hong Kong’s efforts to maintain its status as a global culture hub, hosting international art fairs and film festivals, and China’s increasingly tight grip on creative expression in the city.

For years after its handover from Britain to mainland China, Hong Kong enjoyed self-governance and a host of democratic and artistic liberties as a part of the “one country, two systems” framework, but recent crackdowns, including 2020’s national security law, have threatened such freedoms. Some see Hong Kong’s film ecosystem moving closer to China, where only a handful of foreign films make it into theaters annually.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, called the cancellation another sign of the “mainlandization” of Hong Kong.

“The authorities claim that they have authorized the screening, but some dark forces, probably the liaison office or the Communist Party, have put pressure on movie theaters not to show it,” he said.

In 2021, Hong Kong’s legislature amended a film censorship law and banned films that seek “to endorse, support, promote, glorify, encourage or incite any criminal conduct or any act which would be contrary to the interests of national security.” Showing such a film could result in a fine of 1 million Hong Kong dollars (about $127,000) and three years in prison. The move prompted censors to scour past films for content that might violate the law.

Winnie the Pooh — even in horror-movie form — might not seem like an obvious censorship choice. But in 2013, a photo of Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama sparked comparisons of the pair to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, respectively. Critics of the Chinese Communist Party adopted Pooh as a symbol of the Chinese leader, prompting the government to ban parodies of the bear on social media in China. The 2018 “Christopher Robin” film, which also stars Pooh Bear, was denied release in China, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Given the situation in Hong Kong, theaters withdrawing an approved film, “may not be too surprising,” Kenny Ng Kwok Kwan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies film censorship, wrote in an email. The cancellation “unavoidably” sparked speculation, he said, particularly about censorship, as such moves have become a way of “respecting the red line.”

“Any reference, however vague and imaginative, to political leaders in films are taboos in cinema today,” he noted.

Hong Kong has seen several instances of sudden cancellations in recent years. In the fall, the organizer of an outdoor screening of “The Dark Knight,” which is banned in China and depicts an immoral Chinese mob leader, canceled the event based on Hong Kong government guidance stating that it was too violent. Local media also reported that organizers of a film festival last summer canceled a short film’s screening after censors requested they remove a scene showing the 2014 Umbrella Movement that lasted for less than one second.