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Distributors pull plug on Winnie the Pooh cult horror flick in Hong Kong

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Movie distributors in Hong Kong and Macau have canceled screenings of a British-made horror film featuring the popular children’s character Winnie the Pooh, who is banned from China’s tightly controlled internet due to a supposed resemblance to Communist Party supreme leader Xi Jinping.

“Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” was scheduled to debut in Hong Kong on Thursday after passing the government film censorship process, but was suddenly pulled from movie theaters without explanation, prompting widespread speculation that it was linked to the banning of Winnie the Pooh from the Chinese internet after a series of memes likening him to Xi went viral.

“It is with great regret that we announce that the scheduled release of ‘Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood and Honey in Hong Kong’ and Macau on March 23 has been canceled,” Hong Kong distribution company VII Pillars Entertainment said via its Facebook page.

“We are incredibly sorry for the disappointment and inconvenience,” it said, but gave no reason for the decision.

People commenting under the post seemed to assume political censorship was in play, however. 

“They keep saying that we have freedom of speech!” wrote Wong_FC. “Such freedom of creative and journalistic expression, I don’t think.”

Brian Pun commented “Fragile city,” while Jin Do San said: “I was going to try to understand China’s logic, but now I’m going to give up.”

“We’re already at the point in Hong Kong where we can’t even watch a cult movie,” commented Norman Poon, while Sherman Tse quipped ironically: “We gotta tell good stories about Hong Kong!”

A draconian National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party in 2020 has sharply curtailed the freedoms that the city was promised under the “One Country, Two Systems,” arrangement under which Beijing took over the former British colony.

The independent slasher flick is a horror retelling of the children’s books by A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard in which an alienated Pooh and his animal companions turn on their human owner Christopher Robin after he abandoned them to go to college.

Strong online interest

The $100,000 movie had been set for a one-night screening in the United Kingdom, but has begun screening globally after garnering a huge amount of online interest, and had been due to premiere at more than 30 movie theaters across Hong Kong on Thursday.

Kevin Yeung, secretary for culture, sports and tourism, said the decision to pull the film was taken by the distributor, and not by government film censors.

“As far as I know, it passed its inspection and was rated as a Category 3 movie [restricted to people over 18],” Yeung told reporters on Wednesday.

“The movie was released, and the publisher decided not to screen it in Hong Kong for the time being – that was their decision,” he said.

An official who answered the phone at the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration on Wednesday confirmed that it had certified the movie for release, but declined to comment on the cancellation.

An announcement from the Hong Kong movie website Moviematic said the screening had been canceled due to “technical reasons.” 

However, a screenshot of an earlier version of the announcement published by the independent news site InmediaHK showed that the statement had earlier contained the words: “We’re sure everyone understands that in today’s Hong Kong, there are many things that are beyond our control.”

Veteran Hong Kong journalist and current affairs commentator Gary Tsang said the lack of explanation was naturally making people suspicious.

“There is no evidence of law-breaking, nor that they didn’t complete the formalities,” Tsang said. “So now the government can say that all of the formalities were completed without a hitch, and that it wasn’t them who banned the film.”

“It’s similar to when [activists] have applied to hold a protest march and the police allow it, but then once the formalities are complete, someone will start talking about … atmosphere, or influence, or harm, linked to the protest, none of which are mentioned in the regulations,” he said.

‘Good cop, bad cop’

Earlier this month, a women’s labor organization canceled a march to mark International Women’s Day amid threats from police that they would arrest key activists, despite having gotten permission to hold it.

Tsang said the approach has resulted in a “ridiculous” degree of self-censorship in Hong Kong.

“If they did this according to the law, they would be able to tell us clearly exactly which words were in violation of the rules,” Tsang said. “In the case of the seditious sheep, they could at least claim that the books were incitement to sedition.”

“But they can’t even say the words [Winnie the Pooh] in this case; someone has just told them that if they go ahead, there will be consequences, which is even more terrifying, because they are circumventing the rules now,” he said.

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the pressure to censor the movie could have come directly from Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the national security police, bypassing the Hong Kong government entirely. 

“They can’t afford to explicitly admit that Winnie the Pooh means Xi Jinping and Piglet means Putin,” Sang said in a reference to one of the memes depicting Xi in the role of Pooh.

“The Hong Kong government is playing the role of good cop, which waves everything through, then the bad cop comes along and intimidates or coerces people to make them toe the line,” he said.

Last July, a “Hidden Market” pop-up merchandise event was raided by Hong Kong customs officers claiming that T-shirts on sale bearing the image of Winnie the Pooh had violated trade descriptions law.

In 2018, government censors also banned Disney’s movie “Christopher Robin” from being shown in mainland China, with no public explanation given.

As reported by American Military News