The Hong Kong government announced on Friday that all films, especially documentaries, will soon be vetted for breaches of a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The government set out guidelines "to provide censors with clearer guidelines on film examination" under the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which took effect on July 2020 by decree from Beijing.
"It is the duty of the [government] under the Constitution to safeguar national security," a spokesman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said in a statement on the government's website.
"The executive authorities [must] effectively prevent, suppress and impose punishment for any act or activity endangering national security," he said. "The censor must abide by these provisions."
Film censors in Hong Kong have previously focused on classifying films for suitability for specific age groups, and on whether they contain pornographic material considered unsuitable for general release.
Now, they will be required to be "vigilant" for depictions of actions that could breach the national security law, for example, by appearing to support or endorse such actions.
Such actions could include "riots, arson, criminal damage" and other violent scenes that disrupt public order and could "encourage or incite" audiences to imitate such behavior, the government said, using phrasing similar to its descriptions of the 2019 protest movement, during which some protesters fought back with Molotov cocktails, bricks and other makeshift weapons against widespread police violence.
"The censor may come to the opinion that a film is not suitable for exhibition on [that] basis," the spokesman said, adding that the exercise of freedom of expression are subject to restrictions under the law.
Documentaries in focus
Censors may ban public screenings altogether, or order problematic scenes deleted, the guidelines said.
They should pay particular attention to documentaries, as such content is likely to produce "stronger feelings" in Hong Kong audiences, they said.
Censors should exercise extra caution, and be alert for "bias," "unverified" information or "false or misleading" scenes, and their capacity to incite the audience to similar action, the document said.
Earlier this year, organizers pulled the plug on a screening of "Inside the Red Walls", a frontline account of the 12-day standoff that ensued when riot police besieged the campus of Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (PolyU), prompting students and protesters to build barricades and fight back with makeshift weapons including petrol bombs.
The move by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society followed strident criticism from the pro-China media in the city.
The title of "Inside the Red Walls" refers to the red brick walls of the PolyU campus, where some 1,300 people were arrested during the siege, while around 300 people were sent to hospital with injuries related to water cannon blast, tear gas, and rubber bullets,
Rights groups hit out at the Hong Kong police for 'fanning the flames' of violence as desperate protesters were trapped for several days inside the campus, while hundreds more waged pitched battles with riot police in Kowloon.
Hong Kong Shaolin Soccer star and production manager Tin Kai-Man said the guidelines are still fairly vague from a film-maker's point of view.
"The lines are rather unclear about how something could endanger national security," Tin said. "For example, could dialogue endanger national security?"
"When nobody is clear about this, then they will just not shoot something at all, as that's the safest choice," he said. "But is that a good thing for Hong Kong's film industry?"
Chilling effect feared
Leung Lai Kuen, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the new rules will likely have a chilling effect on Hong Kong's once-vibrant film industry.
"Hong Kong film-makers will now be fearful when they come to make films in future, given the additional restrictions," Leung said. "Because they could shoot a film and then wind up not passing the censors' inspection after it has been completed."
"Films that don't get a certificate [from the board of film censors] can't be shown, so perhaps this will be a big blow for investors?" she said.
Director and screenwriter Kenneth Ip said said there was no legislation governing film censorship in Hong Kong until 1988, when it was brought in to prevent political interference in the city's booming film industry.
Asked if Hong Kong-made films will now be subject to political censorship, Ip declined to comment.
Reported by Cheng Yut Yiu and Lee Ying for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.