In Hong Kong, politics is inseparable from the art of filmmaking

In Hong Kong, politics is inseparable from the art of filmmaking

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements in recent years have inspired the emergence of a new crop of indie films that reflect the zeitgeist of the former British colony. A promotional image for the 2020 Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, held before the passing of a controversial new national security law, between 10 and 21 January 2020.

(Hong Kong Independent Film Festival)

Five years ago, filmmaker Zune Kwok made a dystopian film about a cabal of pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong who plotted the enactment of a dreaded national security law to crack down on pro-democracy activity in the former British colony. This, as it turns out, is an eerie case of art predicting life. Extras, a short story which forms part of the critically acclaimed 2015 anthology flick Ten Years, paints a bleak vision of Hong Kong in 2020. In reality, this is the very year Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, a move that has shocked the world.

“The coincidence is freaky. How should I put it? I’m still digesting what is happening,” the 35-year-old Hong Kong filmmaker says. “When the film came out that year, some people said the plot was too exaggerated to be real. Others said it could happen. Now the law has arrived. Perhaps we filmmakers are a little more sensitive to what’s going on around us.”

The national security law, which came into force in Hong Kong on 30 June 2020, is widely seen as a political bombshell dropped by the Chinese government, apparently to restore order and stability following a months-long, sometimes violent, pro-democracy movement last year that plunged Hong Kong into its biggest crisis in decades. It is believed the legislation will deal a devastating blow to freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, an otherwise freewheeling financial hub whose sovereignty was returned to Communist China from Britain in 1997. Vaguely written, the law criminalises subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment. It was fast-tracked by Beijing, which circumvented Hong Kong’s elected legislature to push the enactment within merely several weeks.

Equally astonishingly, the law doesn’t only cover Hongkongers: one clause specifies that it can be applied to anyone, including people who are not permanent Hong Kong residents and those who violate the law even when they are outside of Hong Kong.

Since the legislation came into effect, events in Hong Kong have been taking place at breakneck speed. In a mass protest on 1 July, just hours after the law was passed, over 370 people were arrested by police, including 10 for violating the new law with acts such as holding a Hong Kong independence flag. Public libraries removed books penned by pro-democracy activists. The rallying cry “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!”, heard at almost every protest over the past year, is now banned. Worried about breaching the sweeping legislation, some renowned writers have stopped publishing their long-time newspaper columns, and key opinion leaders and ordinary protesters have deleted their Twitter accounts. Many lawyers and academics now decline journalists’ interview requests about the legislation. An atmosphere of fear is pervasive.

Independent filmmakers like Kwok, however, have decided that despite the chilling effect of the law, fear has to take a back seat to art. They believe it is now more important than ever to speak up and tell Hong Kong’s stories through their lens.

“Today, everyone is seizing the first chance to push their own narratives of events in Hong Kong. The authorities for sure are doing that. Storytelling is powerful. This is a time when we should tell the Hong Kong stories,” the director remarks. “I can’t pretend the law doesn’t exist, but until something happens to me, I prefer doing what I’ve been doing.”

Chan Tze-woon, 33, another indie filmmaker currently shooting a film about Hongkongers from different generations fighting for freedom at different times, concurs. “Around the time news broke of the law, I suddenly felt a strong creative urge. I turned down odd jobs and focused on filmmaking. We should make as many films about Hong Kong as possible. This is an important time in history. Miss these moments and your thoughts and feelings will not be the same later.”

Restrictions from Chinese funders, self-censorship from artists

In recent years, a new crop of indie filmmakers have emerged in Hong Kong’s struggling film industry, once celebrated as the ‘Hollywood of the Far East’. These creatives, some experienced and many others relatively young, have a penchant for making films in tune with the zeitgeist of contemporary Hong Kong and its history. This is a trend intimately linked with the wider political and social landscape of Hong Kong. Over the past two decades, as perceived encroachment by Beijing into the autonomy of this westernised city has become more real, a sense of local cultural identity has been growing among many Hongkongers. This sense was further reinforced in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, a protest-occupation demanding greater political freedom, and in the 2019 anti-government protest movement, which was sparked by a controversial bill on extraditing Hong Kong fugitives to mainland China. All of this helped to lay the groundwork for the rise of local indie movies with a political and social relevance.

Usually made on a low budget and supported by a cast of C-list or amateur actors, these indie pictures tend to reflect, subtly or artfully, a desire for freedom and justice, as well as a critique of the unequal power relations between mainland China and Hong Kong. Themes include the demolition of a rural village to make way for a rail route linked to mainland China, the story of a young activist, and protesters-police clashes in the 2019 uprising. These stories are refreshing for local audiences who have had enough of Hong Kong’s big-budget movies co-produced with mainland Chinese partners; it’s a business model that enables local filmmakers to access the lucrative Chinese market, but which comes with content restrictions that can make these films seem formulaic and detached from the reality of Hong Kong society.

Attention, applause and sometimes accolades come their way, but the path for these politically conscious films is rarely smooth.

While fundraising is a hard nut to crack for many filmmakers around the world, Hong Kong’s indie directors face an extra challenge: they stand no chance with mainstream investors, many of whom have business ties or are associated with mainland China in some way and, therefore, would steer clear from politically charged projects.

Even after funding is secured and a whole project completed, getting an indie film to see the light of day is no straightforward matter.

Vincent Chui, 55, a veteran filmmaker and programme curator of the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, says that ever since Ten Years’ high-profile success (it was named Best Film at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards) major cinemas have avoided screening films they consider to have ‘sensitive’ content. Most indie films with a political dimension released after 2016 have barely made it to the big screen and have to rely on screenings at one or two arthouse cinemas and local community film events. Chan’s Yellowing, a 2016 documentary about Umbrella, was nominated for Best Documentary at the 53rd Taiwan Golden Horse Award. However, it was screened just four times, at a theatre funded by South Korean money.

“These films have been approved by the authorities. It’s not illegal to show them. But cinemas won’t screen them. This genre has been pushed to the fringe,” Chui explains. “This is something we had been experiencing before the national security law. If anything, this law would only aggravate the self-censorship problem.”

Reverse McCarthyism

Those practising self-censorship are not confined to cinemas. Shortly before the law was enacted, a studio rented by an indie film crew cancelled the rental on the spot when some actors chanted the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” as part of the script. Many showbiz figures are also walking on eggshells. Since Umbrella, Hong Kong actors and musicians vocally supportive of pro-democracy causes have been shunned by the mainstream entertainment industry, lost sponsorship deals, and have been blacklisted in mainland China in a sort of reverse McCarthyist witch-hunt. The suppressive atmosphere forces many celebrities to either keep quiet on even marginally social issues or loudly declare their pro-China position. Neither option favours indie film production.

Nevertheless, compared with their mainland Chinese counterparts, Hong Kong’s indie filmmakers are in a relatively fortunate position. In January this year, the China Independent Film Festival, a leading festival of its kind in China, decided to shut down ‘indefinitely’ after 17 years. The organiser said it was now “impossible” to host a movie festival in China with “a purely independent spirit”. Mainland directors, mainstream or offbeat, can find themselves in hot water if they cross certain unwritten red lines. For example, in 2006 acclaimed director Lou Ye was banned from making films for five years after shooting a feature that touched on the Tiananmen student movement in 1989.

Will Hong Kong’s film sector meet a similar fate soon? Chan, who recently managed to raise half of the funds needed for his latest project through crowdfunding, is ever the optimist. He reckons while self-censorship will continue, there is still room for his films, and that from now on, politics is inseparable from the art of filmmaking in Hong Kong.

“Nowadays you can hardly avoid Hong Kong’s wider social or political context even when you make a romantic comedy. Foreign audiences may also expect to see something specifically Hong Kong from a Hong Kong movie,” he says.

For Chui, it is rather tragic when a new movie genre is borne out of people fighting for freedom for their city. But for the sake of Hong Kong’s film industry and the city as a whole, no filmmaker with a voice should tone down their stories despite the changing political climate, he emphasises.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. Self-censorship is definitely not my way,” Chui adds.

This resolve echoes veteran film producer Derek Yee’s subtle message when he announced Ten Years as the winner of Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2016. Addressing a star-studded audience, Yee said that prior to the award-giving ceremony, a young scriptwriter for the event sheepishly asked him if the script could mention the words “ten years”. Yee then told him: “Young man, President Roosevelt once said: ‘The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.’”