Hong Kong cinemas have cancelled the screening of a horror film based on Winnie the Pooh, prompting speculation the film was pulled because of comparisons internet users made between the children’s character and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a British slasher film that features the titular character terrorising a group of young university women, was scheduled to be released in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory on Thursday.
Moviematic, the organiser of a pre-release screening of the film, said on social media on Tuesday that its screening had been cancelled due to “technical reasons”. VII Pillars Entertainment, the film’s local distributor, said on social media the release had been cancelled without providing further details. VII Pillars Entertainment did not respond to a request for comment.
Local cinema chains Broadway Circuit and Emperor Cinemas on Tuesday appeared to have removed references to the film or its screening from their websites. Cinema City Langham Place, a theatre in the Mongkok district, still listed the film on its website as of Tuesday evening.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration said Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey had been approved for release and the office could not comment on the decisions of cinemas not to screen the film.
“The arrangements of cinemas in Hong Kong on the screening of individual films with certificates of approval in their premises are the commercial decisions of the cinemas concerned, and OFNAA would not comment on such arrangements,” the spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
Winnie the Pooh, created in 1926 by British children’s book author AA Milne, has been censored in mainland China since 2013, when internet users began using the fictional bear’s likeness to poke fun at Xi.
Howard Elias, a local film reviewer, said on his blog he had been unable to reach the film’s distributor, but he suspected he had been “pressured by our so-called ‘patriots’ who would definitely be unhappy about Pooh being depicted on screen in such an unsavoury manner”.
Ng Kwok Kwan, director of the Centre for Film and Moving Image Research in Hong Kong, said cinemas may be exercising self-censorship.
“It unavoidably has sparked speculation about censorship, more precisely self-censorship, in which the cinema house has pulled out the film because of any external pressures, or negotiations…” Ng told Al Jazeera.
“The act of pulling a licensed film may not be too surprising in the current situation or has become a decent way of respecting the red line. Should the censorship bureau [have] banned the film earlier, it would have ignited more controversies, speculation, and pressures in society and internationally.”
In 2018, Chinese censors blocked the release of Christopher Robin, a live-action film following the adventures of Winnie the Pooh’s best friend as an adult.
While Hong Kong was promised rights and freedoms not available in mainland China as a condition of its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the territory has cracked down hard on free expression since the introduction of a Beijing-decreed national security law in 2020.
While the law officially targets subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorism, it has in practice been used to wipe out practically all political opposition and dissent towards Beijing in the former British colony.
In 2021, Hong Kong’s legislature passed a new film censorship law, further raising fears for the future of the local film industry, which once was widely acclaimed as the “Hollywood of the East”.
Hong Kong’s international film festival last year dropped two films from its lineup after the government refused to grant approval for the screenings.