Controversial Hong Kong Doc Sparks Fears of Self-Censorship

Courtesy of Ying e Chi
'Lost in Fumes' is a big hit at colleges, universities and underground screenings.

Commercial exhibitors "afraid of the consequences" are steering clear of pro-democracy feature 'Lost in Fumes.'

Thanks to its politically provocative subject matter, Lost in Fumes, a documentary made by a 22-year-old on a minuscule budget of $12,800 (HK$100,000), has become Hong Kong’s hottest ticket in the past six months. But because of that same subject matter, no commercial film exhibitor in the city has been willing to touch it. The documentary follows the post-election comedown of Hong Kong university student-turned-pro-democracy activist Edward Leung, an eloquent former rising star of local politics who has been threatened with prison over his participation in a protest that became a riot. The film’s fate has renewed fears in Hong Kong’s entertainment sector about the continued erosion of freedom of speech — a trend that has included self-censorship among the city’s establishment as much as outright suppression.

Lost in Fumes is the second documentary feature from recent college graduate Nora Lam. Since November, it has been playing to packed houses at Hong Kong’s Art Centre, at colleges and universities and in impromptu underground community screenings. But Leung’s political stance — which falls somewhat outside the local mainstream and is viewed by the ruling Communist Party in Beijing as a serious threat to its sovereignty over Hong Kong — has meant that most local business leaders would rather run a mile to avoid being associated with the film for fear of social or political reprisal.

Independent filmmaker Vincent Chui, whose government-subsidized production and distribution outfit Ying e Chi produced and is repping the documentary, says Fumes is understandably controversial given the curiosity surrounding Leung. “I can’t say we didn’t foresee difficulties in getting a commercial release for Fumes,” Chui says, “but we try to let the public reception speak for the film when we knock on the doors of commercial exhibitors.”

Lam says the doc’s popularity with local audiences makes it obvious that exhibitors are staying away from the project for political reasons. “My film makes money; it gets a full house at every show,” she says in a message directed at Hong Kong’s cinemas. “Even patriotic films don’t have these kinds of numbers in Hong Kong. So from a purely commercial perspective, this film will make money for you.”

Self-censorship is a more serious issue than it appears in Hong Kong, Lam says. “There is nothing written and no law as yet restricting what people can say, so theoretically we still have freedom of speech,” she notes. “But people are afraid of the consequences, and this fear is more far-reaching than official oppression.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 9 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.