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Oh, bother. What has Winnie-the-Pooh gotten himself into this time? Something quite a bit more troubling than the usual travails of Hundred Acre Wood, it turns out.
First, the lovable children’s character was transformed into the murderous protagonist of Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, a micro-budget U.K. slasher film that went viral and scored theatrical distribution across the globe. Then, when the film landed in Hong Kong, Pooh — or the new, cannibalistic horror flick version of him — became the surprise source of a censorship controversy involving none less than Chinese president Xi Jinping. And the impact of this surreal character arc, according to insiders, could have real-world implications for the fabled Hong Kong film industry’s rapidly dwindling creative freedoms.
From prolific Brit horror banner Jagged Edge Productions, known for its gleefully exploitative and childhood-ruining shlock (it’s currently working on a slasher version of Bambi), Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey — made for just $50,000 — sees a feral 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 hot water in Hong Kong.
Having already made $5.5 million following launches in more than 40 markets — including North America, Mexico and the U.K. — in February, the film was set for release in 32 cinemas in Hong Kong and Macau on March 23 courtesy of local indie distributor VII Pillars Entertainment. But two days prior to the opening, the company put out a short statement over its social media channels saying that the release had been cancelled, offering apologies to fans for the “disappointment and inconvenience.”
In a follow-up interview, Ray Fong, VII Pillars’ general manager, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the film had been fully approved for release by Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA), the government body that handles the territory’s film regulation. Blood and Honey did receive Hong Kong’s highest rating, Category III, which requires all viewers to be over the age of 18, but there was “no editing required,” according to Fong. The executive insists that the various cinemas chains involved in the planned release reached out to his team on Monday to say that the movie was being scrapped, but they provided “no detail.”
“We are not sure what happened,” Fong says.
Meanwhile, local film group Moviematic, an organizer of one of the screenings, said on Instagram that the film was pulled for “technical reasons.” Around the same time, a spokesperson from OFNAA suggested the cancellation was a “commercial decision” made solely by the cinema chains.
China experts and the international press wasted little time in connecting the dots though. In mainland China, which still operates a far stricter film regulation system than the former colony of Hong Kong, the terms “technical” and “commercial” are both regularly deployed in public as euphemisms for censorship problems that the government doesn’t want to openly acknowledge.
When the Oscars were dropped from broadcast in both mainland China and Hong Kong in 2021 for the first time in many years — in response to a Hong Kong protest documentary being nominated in the best short documentary category — local authorities insisted the move was taken because of “commercial reasons.” And when Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, arguably the country’s most esteemed director, had his Cultural Revolution-set period drama One Second yanked from competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, the producers cited an unspecified “technical problem.” It would require the involvement of an especially potent political taboo, however, to impel Hong Kong authorities to backtrack on a Western film’s approval at the last minute, insiders say — but Blood and Honey just so happens to feature one front and center.
Winnie-the-Pooh has been the improbable object of aggressive Chinese censorship action for nearly a decade. The problem began in 2013 during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S. to meet with then-president Barack Obama, when a meme likening the pudgy Chinese premier to Pooh and the lanky American leader to Tigger went viral. China’s savvy internet users, accustomed to a life of cat and mouse with censors, soon began mentioning Pooh whenever they wanted to reference Xi in relation to issues both benign and politically sensitive. Later, the character evolved into a bolder icon of dissent among pro-democracy activists across greater China.
By 2018, all mentions and searches of Pooh were frequently blocked from Chinese social media, and the issue took on greater financial consequence for Hollywood in the form of Disney’s $70 million live-action/CGI feature Christopher Robin, which was blocked from release in China, likely shaving tens of millions from its global box office total.
The producers of Blood and Honey bluntly reject the “technical issues” explanation for the cancellation, noting that the film has been successfully shown on 4,000 movie screens around the world without any other problem or incident. Given its success globally so far, the “commercial” rationale is just as ridiculous to both those attached to the project and Chinese industry experts.
“I don’t believe it for a second,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in the Chinese film industry. “It’s not a good film, but given the attitude in Hong Kong toward Xi Jinping and mainland China, I suspect they were more afraid that they would get too many people showing up — as a protest, maybe even in Pooh costume — than too few.”
VII Pillars’s planned release involved cinemas operated by numerous Hong Kong companies. The notion that all of these different entities simultaneously decided independently to scrap the same film, at the exact same time, just two days before its opening, strikes many inside and outside the Hong Kong industry as deeply suspicious.
“What usually happens in mainland China in a situation like this, when someone in power realizes there is a problem with a film that’s already approved, is a call comes down the line saying, ‘You release this film at your own peril,'” explains Rosen. “And anything touching Xi Jinping would override any other concern.”
Thus, it would appear the Hong Kong film sector, which was promised independence for 50 years after the colony was handed back to China by the British in 1997, may now be subject to the same extra-legal machinations as the Chinese mainland. Not long after the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests were suppressed, Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong injected a new, wide-reaching National Security Law into Hong Kong’s legal framework, creating vaguely defined crimes of subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion — with potential punishments extending to life in prison. In late 2021, Hong Kong’s film censorship system was revised to include automatic bans for films deemed to be in violation of the same vaguely defined Chinese national security interests.
Last year, two films — one from Hong Kong, the other from Taiwan — were dropped from the lineup of an international short film festival in the city because of violations of the new rules. But Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey is thought to be the very first imported feature film to be toppled in Hong Kong because of 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 on the topic. “Of course, that’s exactly what China wants — and I fear the line will keep moving in tighter.”
But for the Blood and Honey‘s writer and director Rhys Frake-Waterfield, already riding high on his creation’s near-farcical trajectory over the last 12 months (and a budget-to-box office ratio that has made it one of the most profitable films in history), the latest news from the Middle Kingdom is merely another badge of honor.
“It’s insane — this film couldn’t get any more controversial,” he tells THR. “And it’s great, because when you want your film to become ‘culty,’ being banned in a country is a very nice selling point.”
As for VII Pillars, while it may not have been able to distribute one of the most talked about films of the year, THR understands it’s being given the Hong Kong distribution rights to the Bambi slasher — Bambi: The Reckoning (which Frake Waterfield is producing and Scott Jeffrey, his partner at Jagged Edge, is directing). As yet, depictions of doe-eyed cartoon deers are still permitted.
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