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Winnie-the-Pooh movie may have pushed Hong Kong toward more censorship – The Hollywood Reporter


Oh, bother. What made Winnie-the-Pooh enter at this time? It turns out that there is something more troubling than the usual suffering in the Hundred Acre Wood.

First, the lovable children’s character was transformed into a killer protagonist Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a small-budget British slasher film that became a critical hit and achieved worldwide theatrical distribution. Then, when the film reached Hong Kong, Pooh — or the cannibal horror film remake — became a surprising source of censorship controversy involving Chinese President Xi Jinping. And according to Insiders, the influence of this surreal figure could have real-world ramifications for the rapidly diminishing creative freedoms in Hong Kong’s film industry.

From the prolific British horror banner Jagged Edge Productions, known for its delightfully exploitative and devastatingly childish aesthetic (it’s currently working on a slasher version of Bambi), Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey – MADE FOR ONLY $50,000 – sees Pooh and Piglet go on a bloody rampage after Christopher Robin leaves them behind for college. But it wasn’t the gore (in one scene Pooh drives over a girl’s head) that landed the film in Hong Kong hot water.

Having already made $5.5 million after being released in more than 40 markets — including North America, Mexico and the UK — in February, the film was set to be released in 32 cinemas in Hong Kong and Macau on March 23 courtesy of independent local distributor VII Pillars. Entertainment. . Two days before the opening, however, the company issued a short statement via its social media channels saying that the release had been cancelled, and offering an apology to fans for the “disappointment and inconvenience”.

In a follow-up interview, Ray Fong, general manager of VII Pillars said: Hollywood Reporter that the film has been fully approved for release by the Hong Kong Bureau of Film, Newspapers and Articles Administration (OFNAA), the government body that handles film regulation in the territory. blood and honey It earned Hong Kong’s highest rating, Category Three, which requires all viewers to be over the age of 18, but “there was no editing required,” according to Fong. The CEO insists that the various movie theater chains involved in the planned release reached out to his team on Monday to say the movie has been cancelled, but they haven’t provided “any details.”

“We’re not sure what happened,” says Fong.

Meanwhile, local film group Moviematic, an organizer of one of the screenings, said on Instagram that the film had been pulled for “technical reasons”. Around the same time, an OFNAA spokesperson indicated that the cancellation was a “business decision” made only by cinema chains.

But China experts and the international press wasted little time connecting the dots. In mainland China, which still has a stricter system of film regulation than the former colony of Hong Kong, the terms “technical” and “commercial” are regularly posted in public as euphemisms for censorship problems the government doesn’t want to make public. acknowledge.

When the Academy Awards were removed from broadcasting in both China and Hong Kong in 2021 for the first time in many years — in response to a Hong Kong protest documentary that was nominated in the Best Documentary Short category — local authorities insisted the move had been taken due to “commercial reasons.” “. And when Chinese director Zhang Yimou, arguably the country’s most respected director, saw a Cultural Revolution period drama One second After being disqualified from competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, the producers cited an unspecified “technical problem”. Insiders say it would take the involvement of particularly strong political taboos, to push Hong Kong authorities to back out of approving a western film at the last minute — but blood and honey It happens because there is only one interface and middle.

Winnie-the-Pooh has been the unlikely target of aggressive Chinese censorship measures for nearly a decade. The trouble began in 2013 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States to meet with then-President Barack Obama, when a meme went viral likening the obese Chinese Prime Minister Poh and the lanky American leader Petiger. Savvy netizens in China, accustomed to a cat-and-mouse life with censorship, soon began mentioning Pooh whenever they wanted to refer to Xi on benign and politically sensitive issues. Later, the character evolved into a more outspoken icon of dissent among pro-democracy activists across Greater China.

By 2018, all mentions and searches of Pooh had been repeatedly banned from Chinese social media, and the case took on even bigger financial consequences for Hollywood in the form of Disney’s $70 million live-action/CGI feature. Christopher Robinwhich has been banned from release in China, potentially grossing tens of millions from the global box office total.

my producers blood and honey He strongly rejected the “technical issues” explanation for the cancellation, stating that the film was successfully shown on 4,000 movie screens around the world without any problem or other incident. Given its worldwide success so far, the “commercial” reasoning is completely absurd to those associated with the project and Chinese industry experts.

“I don’t believe it for a second,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the Chinese film industry. “It’s not a good movie, but given the attitude in Hong Kong toward Xi Jinping and mainland China, I suspect they were more afraid of too many people showing up—as a protest, perhaps even in a Pooh costume—than too few.”

VII Pillars’ planned release included cinemas operated by several Hong Kong companies. The notion that all these different entities simultaneously decided independently to cancel the same film, at the exact same time, just two days before its opening, struck many in and outside the Hong Kong industry as extremely suspicious.

“What usually happens in mainland China in a situation like this, when someone in authority realizes there’s a problem with a movie that’s already been approved, is that a call comes down the line saying, ‘You’re releasing this movie at your own risk,'” Rosen explains. “Anything that touches Xi Jinping will override any other concern.”

Thus, it appears that Hong Kong’s film sector, which was promised independence for 50 years after the British handed the colony back to China in 1997, may now be subject to the same illegal machinations as mainland China. Not long after the city’s 2019 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong loyalists inserted a sweeping new national security law into Hong Kong’s legal framework, creating vague crimes such as subversion, separatism, terrorism and foreign complicity – with potential penalties of up to life imprisonment. In late 2021, Hong Kong’s film censorship system was amended to include automatic bans on films deemed to violate the same vaguely defined Chinese national security interests.

Last year, two films – one from Hong Kong and one from Taiwan – were dropped from the list of the city’s International Short Film Festival for violating the new rules. but Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey It is believed to be the first imported feature film to be dropped in Hong Kong due to Beijing-style censorship priorities.

“It’s not always clear where the line is, so now producers and distributors are starting to censor themselves to stay safe,” says a veteran Hong Kong distributor who asked not to be named because of the risks of speaking publicly about it. “Of course, that’s exactly what China wants – and I’m afraid the line will continue to move much tighter.”

But for blood and honeyWriter-director Reese Fricke-Waterfield, who has really been riding his semi-comedy creation trajectory over the past 12 months (and a budget-to-box-office ratio that has made it one of the highest-grossing films in history), the latest news from the Middle Kingdom is just another badge of honor.

“It’s crazy – this movie couldn’t get any more controversial,” he says. THR. “It’s great, because when you want your film to go ‘cultural’, being banned in a country is a very good selling point.”

As for VII Pillars, while it may not be able to hand out one of the most talked about movies of the year, THR understands that the Hong Kong distribution rights have been given to Slasher Bambi – Bambi: the reckoning (Which is produced by Freak Waterfield and directed by Scott Jeffery, his co-star on Jagged Edge). Until now, it was still allowed to depict cartoon deer with doe eyes.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.