Berlin: Filmmaker Johnnie To’s Remarks About Totalitarianism Strike Chord in Hong Kong

The Berlin International Film Festival’s jury press conference, headed by Hollywood star Kristen Stewart, concluded on Thursday, but remarks made by legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To at the event are still reverberating a world away.

When the festival jurors were asked by a journalist in the crowd to share their views on why cinema remains important in today’s world, To, considered on the greatest filmmakers Hong Kong has produced, responded: “For me, cinema has always been in the vanguard. When totalitarian rule emerges, when people lose their freedoms, cinema is the first to take the hit. In most cases, cultural production will be forcefully suspended, since the cinema speaks directly to the audience. That’s why dictators always target the cinema. I think Hong Kong … No, sorry. I think all the countries and peoples fighting for freedom across the globe should support the cinema. Because the cinema speaks out on behalf of you.”

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His remarks attracted relatively little notice in Berlin, in part because the interpreter at the event bungled the translation from Cantonese to English, causing most in the crowd to miss the import of his statement. But back in To’s native Hong Kong, which in recent years has seen its freedoms of speech dismantled and a fleeting pro-democracy movement crushed by Beijing dictate, they instantly went viral — and have remained a hot topic of discussion on social media since.

“I think films around the world today are worse than before,” To also said earlier in the presser. “Apparently the film world I used to know is vanishing bit by bit. It’s not the film world I used to know. I hope this is just a temporary phenomenon. Perhaps I’m a bit bold with my words, but they come from my heart.”

Several film figures from mainland China, which has come under heightened censorship constraints over the past several years as Xi Jinping has further cemented his power, also reached out to The Hollywood Reporter to say how meaningfully To’s statement has been received even in the Beijing film industry. “It was so encouraging to hear what he said at this moment,” said one Chinese producer, who asked to remain unnamed. “It spoke directly to Chinese filmmakers’ hearts.”

Over his 40-year career, To has long been one of Hong Kong’s most esteemed filmmaking voices, with films like Breaking News, Election, Election 2, Exiled, Mad Detective and Drug War exerting a deep influence on film culture both within the Chinese-speaking world and abroad (Six of To’s film’s have screened at Cannes over the years and both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese have been particularly vocal fans). In addition to his role on the Berlinale jury, To also has a film he produced — Made Fate, directed by Soi Cheang — premiering in the festival’s Berlinale Special section.

The director’s remarks in Berlin are especially bold in light of the repressive national security law that was introduced in his home city of Hong Kong in 2020. The law makes any statement deemed to be in support of Hong Kong’s succession form Mainland China a crime; and it has resulted in numerous local activists and artists landing in prison.

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