HORROR FILM WINNIE THE POOH: BLOOD AND HONEY HAS BEEN PULLED FROM HONG KONG CINEMAS. PHOTO: ALTITUDE FILMS
The director of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey wanted to mess with people’s childhood nostalgia when he gave the beloved icon a sinister twist in his new horror flick. But the film appears to have hit a different nerve in Hong Kong, where the cartoon bear is a touchy subject because of its resemblance to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield confirmed to VICE World News on Monday that the film will not be released in the city as planned, possibly for political reasons. “It was originally scheduled to be in over 30 [cinemas] and had been approved by the censorship [authority],” he said. “Then suddenly something happened, which resulted in all independent cinema chains pulling out one by one.”
The film was initially scheduled to hit the theaters on Thursday. The movie debuted to a packed audience in Hong Kong last week, suggesting the film had been approved by authorities. But the U-turn came to light on Monday, when Moviematic, a local film group that had organized a pre-release screening for the following day, announced the event had to be canceled due to “technical reasons.”In a statement on Tuesday, the film’s distributor in Hong Kong, VII Pillars Entertainment, announced the cancellation of the screenings in Hong Kong and Macau without stating a reason. “We are sorry for the disappointment and inconvenience,” it added. “I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with the film or technical reasons,” Frake-Waterfield said. “I imagine something [happened] behind the scenes.” The film has become a test case for the shifting red lines in Hong Kong, which implemented a film censorship law in 2021 to ban movies deemed threats to national security. The legislation also empowered the city’s chief secretary to revoke any film’s license if it was considered at odds with national security interests. Some speculated that the film might be deemed sensitive due to a long-running meme the Chinese Communist Party has tried to suppress. “The biggest issue might be that it makes people think of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as many have said Winnie the Pooh looks very similar to Xi,” Johnny Man, a cinemagoer who attended the screening last week, told VICE World News.
The likeness has inspired memes and turned the bear into a political symbol among critics of Xi and his government. There were suggestions that Christopher Robin—Disney’s 2018 live action film also starring Pooh— was blocked in mainland China for the same reason. Additionally, Chinese social media censors have previously scrubbed images and comments featuring the character, after they were used to throw shade at the Chinese leader. Kenny Ng, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film, said the removal was “likely an act of self censorship” by theaters that have come under pressure. He added that it could be the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations between theaters chains and the film authorities that are now common in the industry.In 2021, before the film censorship law took effect, a theater caved to pressure from pro-Beijing newspapers and canceled the screening of a documentary about the pro-democratic protests in 2019, citing “excessive attention.” Previous to that, pro-Beijing outlets had attacked the film and suggested public screening could incite hatred of the government, thus violating the national security law.
Instead of banning the film outright, authorities might have chosen “a low-key approach” to take down the film without stirring public controversy, Ng added. In a written reply to VICE World News, Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration, which oversees the Film Censorship Authority, said it has issued a certificate of approval to the film. It would not comment on screening arrangements, which it said are “commercial decisions” of the cinemas.In the independent slasher film, Christopher Robin revisited the Hundred Acre Wood, only to find that his friends have starved, grown resentful, and turned murderous in his absence. The production was made possible in part because the copyright to the original 1926 “Winnie-the-Pooh” book expired last year. The gory film fell flat with reviewers and landed a score of 4 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, earning a place among the review platform’s list of worst movies of all time. “With Pooh, it’s meant to be popcorn horror,” Frake-Waterfield said in a recent interview. “Anyone that goes to see it, you’re supposed to just have fun, embrace the silly side of it.”“It’s not meant to be too serious,” he added. Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter and Instagram.Update: This article has been updated with a statement from Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration.Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Christopher Robin was released in 2020. We regret the error.