Killing of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Flick in Hong Kong and Macau Raises Chinese Censorship Concerns

Winnie the Pooh Blood and Honey Movie Still
Winnie the Pooh Blood and Honey Movie Still
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Credit - Courtesy of ITN Studios and Jagged Edge Productions

Oh, bother. Winnie the Pooh has found himself in another sticky situation.

Just two days before a British horror flick starring a murderous version of the famous talking yellow bear was set to hit cinemas in Hong Kong, its distributor abruptly announced “with great regret” that the film’s scheduled release in the city as well as in the neighboring Chinese enclave of Macau had been “cancelled.”

VII Pillars Entertainment told Screen Daily that they were notified without explanation that 32 theaters across both territories would not go ahead with screenings of filmmaker Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey as previously planned. “We are pulling our hair, of course, very disappointed,” a spokesperson told Reuters.

One screening organizer, Moviematic, posted an Instagram story that said the release was called off due to “technical reasons”—a rationale Frake-Waterfield disputes. “They claim technical reasons, but there is no technical reason,” he told Reuters. “The film has showed in over 4,000 cinema screens worldwide. These 30+ screens in Hong Kong are the only ones with such issues.”

The cancellation has raised fresh concerns of increasing censorship in China’s so-called special administrative regions. “I assume #CCP and their #HongKong quislings worry that viewers might think it wasn’t a movie but a documentary about #XiJinping,” tweeted Benedict Rogers, the London-based founder of Hong Kong Watch, an organization monitoring human rights in the Chinese territory.

A protester holds a poster of Xi Jinping and a Pooh plush during a demonstration in Bangkok, where the Chinese leader was attending APEC in November 2022.<span class="copyright">Varuth Pongsapipatt—SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images</span>
A protester holds a poster of Xi Jinping and a Pooh plush during a demonstration in Bangkok, where the Chinese leader was attending APEC in November 2022.Varuth Pongsapipatt—SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images

The cartoon bear had previously been blacklisted in mainland China after critics of President Xi Jinping frequently pointed out the character’s resemblance to the leader. The ruling Chinese Communist Party scrubbed pictures of Pooh off its restricted cyberspace in 2017, and the next year it blocked a Disney-produced live-action Pooh film.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that has touted greater Western-style freedoms under a “one country, two systems” policy since being ceded to China in 1997, has mostly enjoyed screening films with comparably less oversight until recently. After Beijing passed a controversial “national security law” in 2020 that covers even territories outside its jurisdiction, Hong Kong implemented censorship rules to comply with the policy, though the local government has claimed that it does not stifle free speech or freedom of expression.

Hong Kong’s censorship board denies that the Pooh slasher was suppressed. The city’s regulatory Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration told TIME that the film passed the local screening assessment and had already been issued the required certificate of approval to be released. “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,” it added.

Kenny Ng, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film, tells TIME that the pullout could be “self-censorship” due to the political climate rather than overt censorship imposed by authorities. “The act of withdrawing a licensed film from public exhibition may not be too surprising in the current situation or indeed has become a decent way of respecting the red line,” he said in an email. “Surely any reference, however vague and imaginative, to political leaders in films are taboos in cinema today.”

Would-be viewers may not be missing much, according to critics, who universally panned the film. Still, poor reviews haven’t stopped the movie from raking in big bucks at box offices in markets where it was released: since its debut in January, the low-budget Blood and Honey has earned more than $3.6 million worldwide.