Renowned HK actor laments China’s censorship hurts creativity


‘We have a lot of restrictions now,’ says Chow Yun-fat.

Renowned HK actor laments China’s censorship hurts creativity

Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat at a press conference at the 28th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in Busan on October 5, 2023.

Hong Kong film legend Chow Yun-fat has conceded that the city’s film industry – on the decline from its heyday – has no freedom, and creativity was at the mercy of China’s censorship requirements. 

A movie script is subject to multiple departments and layers of approval, Chow told the press at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival on Thursday.

“We have a lot of restrictions now. It is very difficult for Hong Kong filmmakers. But we will try our best to make movies with the Hong Kong spirit. This is our goal.”

Chow is the first prominent figure in the industry to speak out publicly against the Chinese film approval system. He was named Asian Filmmaker of the Year at the Busan festival.

Once the trend setter in Asian entertainment and films, way before South Korea’s K-pop and movies grabbed the world’s attention, the Hong Kong film industry is dying a slow death, battling first with piracy and then competition from capital-rich China which has lured some of its best talent. 

At the same time, Beijing’s tightened controls on free speech and expression have crimped creativity, as most, if not all, productions depended on investments from China and for a commercial release in the world’s second-largest economy.

Hong Kong’s box office receipts in the first half of this year totaled HK$771.9 million (US$98.56 million), according to the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association. The figure is less than 3% of the 26.3 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) that Chinese cinemas have raked in for the six-month period, based on data from the China Film Administration. 

“Somehow, up to 1997 … a lot of different things changed,” Chow said. “We have to pay attention to our government, the direction, where we have to go. You know, this is important. Otherwise, it’d be very hard to get the money to build up a story and shoot the movie. Because the mainland China market is so huge, so we are trying [out] some solutions – to make a living.”

No ghosts or dirty cops

In the 20 years since the Mainland Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership (CEPA) was signed, the Hong Kong-China model in filmmaking has become a mainstay, which means the script also has to be vetted by the Chinese authorities before filming can commence.

Tin Kai Man, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers told Radio Free Asia that joint productions inevitably need to meet “national conditions” – no sex, ghosts and monsters, as well as dirty cops content – in order to be released in China.

“Hong Kong [authorities] wouldn’t kill your movies, or ban them. At most, they’d ask for certain cuts to be made. The Chinese system is different. If you want to make a film, you need to first finish the script, get approval to film, and then submit to the China Film Administration to vet, to obtain the so-called dragon seal,” Tin said.

Meanwhile, actor Chow said every film market has its golden age. The 1980s and 1990s are touted as the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, and Chow said the spotlight is now on Korean films – South Korea not only has the creative freedom that his city lacks, but the movies are also recognized by Hollywood.

“Why Korean shows are good is because the range of the topics is huge. Perhaps because of the [Korean] government’s support and the wide freedom, the thinking of creators is broad,” he said. “I’m surprised at so many themes – woah, they are brave to make such films. I think they have unlimited imagination, strong creativity. The films are good; I’m happy and excited about them.”

Chow entered the industry in 1973. He first found fame in television in the 1970s and 1980s, before moving on to the big screen. Over the past 50 years, he has created many classic films, which helped propel Hong Kong to the status of Asia’s Hollywood. He also successfully broke into Hollywood with a number of films like “Anna and the King,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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