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Genre and Censorship: The Crime Film in Late Colonial Hong Kong

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Part of the East Asian Popular Culture book series (EAPC)

Abstract

Taking its cue from recent developments in genre theory, this chapter treats genre as a process and as a cultural category constructed through discourse. Specifically, it looks at one neglected field in which the Hong Kong crime film was constituted as a genre: government censorship in the period before the 1997 Handover. The chapter argues that in Cold War Hong Kong, there existed a somewhat paradoxical interconnection between the colonial government’s censorship of politics and its censorship of violence, crime and sex in films. The censorship regime negotiated between the competing goals and demands from the Hong Kong film industry, the general public, and the government and had a profound influence on the evolution of the territory’s most well-known crime films during this time.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Another important work that further signalled this shift in genre studies was Steve Neale’s Genre and Hollywood (2000), which came out a year after Altman’s Film/Genre (1999).

  2. 2.

    Influential studies of film censorship in this period are Jacobs (1997), Maltby (1993), and Vasey (1997).

  3. 3.

    Similar arguments have been made regarding censorship’s impact on the 1930s horror film. For a recent account in this vein, see Peirse (2013). Peirse pays a considerable amount of attention to the role of censorship institutions, especially those in the United States and Britain.

  4. 4.

    Examples are “G” Men (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936). Both films starred actors already famous for their gangster roles (James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) as undercover detectives infiltrating the mob.

  5. 5.

    Also in this regard, Naylor’s work parallels that by Kuhn, which had moved beyond the usual scope of censorship studies (with its focus on laws and censorship institutions) to look at the role of a wider range of actors and the evolving relationships and power struggles between them.

  6. 6.

    Legislation in Hong Kong in fact predated similar legislation in Britain, where film censorship was introduced with the Cinematograph Act of 1909.

  7. 7.

    In the “Places of Public Entertainment Regulations, 1934”, the Director of Education was added to the newly established “board of censors”. In practice, these officials often delegated their censorship duties to subordinates.

  8. 8.

    Michael Ng (2017) has found similar concerns influencing the censorship of newspapers in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hong Kong. We shall see below that the wish to avoid offending friendly nations—the governments in Beijing and Taipei in particular—was an enduring trait of Hong Kong film censorship until the 1990s.

  9. 9.

    For a more detailed account, see Yau (2015, 93–100).

  10. 10.

    The PRO would become the Information Services Department (ISD) in 1959. It remained responsible for film censorship until 1972. See Ho (2004, 308–12; 331–33) for more info on the relevant government departments.

  11. 11.

    One example was Dr. Irene Cheng, who was appointed as film censor in 1948. Dr. Cheng was the daughter of Eurasian tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung and was also Woman Inspector of Vernacular Schools at the time. See HKPRO (1948, HKRS2139-2-1). HKPRO stands for Hong Kong Public Records Office.

  12. 12.

    The changes in film censorship in this period have been closely analysed in Du (2017, 120–25).

  13. 13.

    For political film censorship in Hong Kong during the Cold War, see Chang (2019), Du (2017), Ng (2008), and Yau (2015).

  14. 14.

    I have written more extensively on this period’s film censorship in two earlier publications, Van den Troost (2014, 2017). The below discussion draws on these two articles.

  15. 15.

    A crucial turning point was Shaw Brothers’ appeal against the cuts to Death Valley (Duanhungu, Lo Wei, 1968). The Board of Review used this appeal to re-evaluate the censorship of sex and violence in films, resulting in a further relaxation of standards. For a more detailed account, see Van den Troost (2014, 64–65).

  16. 16.

    Several yakuza films starring Takakura Ken made their way to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s, including at least one film from the influential Abashiri Prison series, Zoku Abashiri Bangaichi (1965, released in Hong Kong in 1966). See Wah Kiu Yat Po (1966).

  17. 17.

    An article in The Star (1973) noted this inconsistency in the treatment of The Godfather versus that of violent films made locally.

  18. 18.

    In an example of one such clash, Kuei in a 1975 interview with The Star accused the censors of having a “double standard” for local and foreign films as they had just shot down his script for a film on a famous local crime boss.

  19. 19.

    The pressure of leftist groups was a real concern in the 1960s and early 1970s. It famously caused problems for Patrick Lung Kong’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s “The Plague”, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (Zuotian jintian mingtian, 1970), which was interpreted as an anti-Cultural Revolution and anti-leftist allegory. The film was released after a two-year delay and with massive cuts, not by the government censors but presumably by the production company itself (Ng 2009, 60). In Taiwan, films with Chinese communist connections were banned from the 1950s to the early 1990s, even if the film itself was widely interpreted as anti-communist. A well-known example is Ann Hui’s Boat People (Touben nuhai, 1982), which in Hong Kong was read as an indirect expression of the anxieties surrounding the 1997 Handover, but which was banned in Taiwan because it was shot in mainland China and funded by a known leftist actress, Hsia Meng (Liang 2004, 247–50).

  20. 20.

    For a detailed account of the film and its encounter with censorship, see Tan (1996).

  21. 21.

    The reference here is likely to Alan Donald, who served as Political Adviser to the Governor of Hong Kong between 1974 and 1977.

  22. 22.

    The appeal was rejected by the Board in May. The CMPC never followed up on its threat to sue the government.

  23. 23.

    Other Taiwanese films banned in this period are The Battle of Ku Ning Tou (Guningtou da zhan, Chang Tseng-chai, 1980), The Anger (Shaonv chuyequan: Shanghai shehui dang’an, Wang Chu-Chin, 1981) and Twilight in Geneva (Reneiwa de huanghun, Pai Ching-Jui, 1986).

  24. 24.

    I will return to the potential illegality of the government’s censorship later.

  25. 25.

    Originally this indicated that the film was suitable to those over 16 years only. In 1970, this was changed to those over 18 years. Showing an X-rated film to someone under this age is illegal.

  26. 26.

    A minor change was made in 1968, when films and related promotional materials so classified had to indicate they were not suitable for children. It was not illegal to show such films to children, however.

  27. 27.

    The 1980 survey focused on television, but two questions involved film censorship. See HKPRO (1980, HKRS2139-2-14). A dedicated survey on film censorship in 1981–1982 indicated 80% of respondents supported legally restricting admission to cinemas to prevent “persons of certain ages from viewing some types of films”. See HKPRO (1982, HKRS70-8-1368).

  28. 28.

    For a deeper analysis of the possible illegality of film censorship prior to 1988, see Chan (1988, 212–13).

  29. 29.

    Indeed, political censorship continued under the new law until 1994, when the clause allowing censorship to avoid affecting good relations with other countries was finally scrapped. The “good relations” clause was used only once after 1988, to cut sixteen minutes from a 1989 Taiwanese documentary on the June Fourth Massacre (South China Morning Post 1994; Stoner 1989).

  30. 30.

    See, for example, South China Morning Post (1983). The claim here is attributed to Pritam Singh, then Secretary of the Television Authority.

  31. 31.

    Naremore’s work is often named together with Altman’s and Neale’s as heralding the 1990s shift in genre studies towards a historicist, contextual-discursive approach.

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Van den Troost, K. (2020). Genre and Censorship: The Crime Film in Late Colonial Hong Kong. In: Feng, L., Aston, J. (eds) Renegotiating Film Genres in East Asian Cinemas and Beyond. East Asian Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55077-6_9

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