Hong Kong still has a precious freedom in film distribution and exhibition.

Recent debates about Hong Kong SAR are becoming a little repetitive. Hopefully this article will put things into a different perspective.

2005, I was 18 and had the privilege to encounter a film screening season dedicated to Isabelle Huppert. It was also the first time that I had to use my ID card to purchase a cinema ticket. The screening that I went for was The Piano Teacher (2001) and the film was rated Category III (equivalent to Certificate 18 in the UK). Despite being blown away by the content, there were several other things I realised through that experience.

Hong Kong has a mature film rating system, which mainland China still doesn’t. The screening (at AMC at Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong) was quite empty, in fact. Most teenagers at my age were not interested in arthouse cinema or non-Hollywood foreign films. Despite a low attendance at that particular cinema, the season still went ahead. The event was sponsored by the Alliance Française de Hong Kong and its partners. At that time, I felt like I was the luckiest sixth form girl by discovering this treasure and more importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity.

It wasn’t the first time that Hong Kong held a retrospective season dedicated to Isabelle Huppert, it was neither the last. Her films returned from time to time and she even visited Hong Kong in 2014, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sino-French relations.  On the other hand, The Piano Teacher has never been available in China legally. It has not been released at cinema and it is still not available for streaming via online platforms. Because of the lack of a film rating system in mainland China, it also proved to be difficult for the film to pass censorship at festivals. That said, it does not mean the film is not known among cinephiles in mainland. The film is currently rated 7.4/10 on Douban with over 47k ratings. Chinese audience on the other side have been waiting to encounter Isabelle Huppert for many years.  The enthusiasm grew even stronger when Huppert revealed her interest to collaborate with Chinese directors last year.  In contract, there are possibly more audience who are familiar with the film The Piano Teacher in mainland than in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a completely different film distribution and exhibition landscape than mainland China. It enjoys total freedom where it comes to foreign films. Distributors can distribute any film they want, based on taste and the market. In other words, audience in Hong Kong have more opportunities to see different foreign films on a big screen than those in mainland. One of the most active Kong Kong distributors for promoting foreign films is Edko. Their releases include The Thief (1997), The Lunchbox (2014), Call me By Your Name (2017), The Truth (2019) and many others which have not been available in mainland.

The current film censorship in Hong Kong is relatively relaxed. Ironically, it was first introduced during the colonial period by the British Government, in order to censor Hong Kong leftist films that promoted Socialism and Communism ideas.

In terms of international trade in license rights, films are normally sold to Hong Kong and mainland China separately, because of the difference in the distribution mechanism. Mainland distributors would not normally buy rights for the territory of Hong Kong when they acquire rights for China, because they don’t have access to the cinemas in Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong distributors occasionally try to acquire mainland rights for foreign films, because they have channels to re-sell them to different buyers.  This imbalance remains.

For another example, Joker (2019) did not get a release in mainland China last year, as predicted. At the most critical time that Hong Kong was going through in modern history, the film still had a wide release in the territory. It topped the local box-office for at least two weeks. This is one of the most valid evidence, in my opinion, to safe guard the ideal of “One Country, Two Systems”.

The image of a rather empty cinema for the screening of The Piano Teacher came back to my memory tonight. The city has always been enjoying freedom in film distribution and exhibition, for both local and foreign films. Such freedom is meaningless however, if there is no audience, acknowledgement or appreciation.

Disclosure: The author does not work for any commercial company mentioned in this article. 

Image credit: Thanks to Skull Kat for sharing their work on Unsplash.