Censored: Why Hong Kong residents can’t watch Kidman’s latest show Expats

Watch the 'Expats' official trailer

Source: YouTube/Amazon Prime

Australian actor Nicole Kidman is the star of another TV hit, but her latest small-screen venture has sparked some intriguing questions.

Kidman is one of the stars of Amazon Prime’s six-episode drama Expats, and her production company, Blossom Films, holds the rights to the book on which it is based.

Set in Hong Kong, Expats centres around the lives of three American women living in the Chinese city in 2014.

The first two episodes dropped around the world last Friday, with more instalments to follow each week.

But there is one place where it cannot be seen – the city where it was filmed.

That ban on Hong Kong’s seven million residents has sparked fresh speculation about censorship in a city where civil liberties are shrinking fast.

In Hong Kong, viewers who try to switch to the show get a simple message: “This video is currently unavailable to watch in your location.”

“Filmed in HK … but can’t be viewed in HK … the international city,” one social media user commented.

The ban comes as Hong Kong’s government hardened controls over political speech following anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.

In 2020, China passed a National Security Law that criminalised political activities, such as protesting for independence. Since then, hundreds of activists have been arrested or driven into exile, while opposition-leaning media have been forced out of business.

Expats is based on a book by Hong Kong-born American writer Janice YK Lee, and is directed by China-born American director Lulu Wang.

The first episode features a brief scene in which people at a rally chant in Cantonese, “I want real general elections”.

The trailer for the show also features a crowd holding umbrellas, a reference to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when protesters demanded the right to choose Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Reportedly, coverage of the protest movement takes up just 20 minutes of Expat‘s 6½ hours.

It’s not the first time streaming services have barred Hong Kong residents from watching particular shows.

The Walt Disney Co has removed an episode of The Simpsons that featured a reference to “forced labour camps” in China from its Disney Plus streaming service in the city.

As with Expats, it’s unclear whether authorities were involved in the decision to pull the content or companies acted on their own.

In June 2021, Hong Kong’s government changed the Film Censorship Ordinance to give it the power to remove films that include “portrayal, depiction or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security”.

A spokesperson at Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said the government wouldn’t comment on the issue, and directed questions to Amazon.

Representatives of Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers chairman Tenky Tin Kai-man said the decision to ban the series in the city could be an attempt to safeguard local crew involved in it, as some had said Expats had “sensitive” content.

“If foreign investors or production companies are not clear on Hong Kong’s rules and regulations, it is understandable that they would choose a risk-averse direction to avoid potential troubles or issues,” Tin told the South China Morning Post.

Kidman’s role in the series has also previously attracted controversy. In 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong’s government allowed her to skip mandatory quarantine when she arrived to film the series, according to local media outlet HK01.

The Australian star was reportedly spotted out and about just two days after touching down.

That angered locals, who were required to undergo lengthy quarantine periods when returning from overseas – and some were even sent to temporary quarantine camps.

Local authorities said at the time that the restrictions were waived for the Expats team “to carry out designated professional work”.

This week, local lawmaker Doreen Kong Yuk-foon said the series put the government in an awkward position because the quarantine exemption did not lead to a result that showed Hong Kong in an entirely positive light.

“The government should have treated everyone equally according to the strict quarantine requirements at that time, regardless of arrivals’ identities,” Kong told the SCMP.

“The production team coming to film in Hong Kong did not breach any laws. The government also provided assistance and convenience, for Kidman in particular.

“If there had been better understanding beforehand, today’s reaction would not have put the government in an awkward position.”

-with AAP

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