This May, one year after the Cannes Film Festival antagonised the Chinese government by showing Kiwi Chow’s Revolution of Our Times, a documentary sympathetic to Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protesters, it devoted screen time to a film that took the opposite angle.
In Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again, China is not the autocratic oppressor but the benevolent ruler, helping the city recover from political chaos and weather its worst Covid-19 outbreak.
According to a press release published on June 1, “The audience applauded for 3 minutes after the screening.” Some, it said, were “stunned and their impressions of Hong Kong were refreshed.”
It added that the film had also recently won the Best Documentary Award at the Prague Film Festival, where, according to another article, it had to be shown again to accommodate the throngs of people who wanted to see it.
Were the viewpoints of the Chinese Communist Party finally gaining ground abroad?
The story did not hold up to scrutiny. As Twitter user K Tse and Czech outlet Deník N reported, there is no Prague Film Festival, just two people showed up for a screening of the film, and promotional images were based on stock photos. While the film had been in Cannes, it had not been shown at the prestigious festival, like Revolution of Our Times, but at the concurrent Marché du Films, a marketplace where screenings can be bought.
The film’s press releases fooled some in the Cantonese community who liked a related post on social media, assuming without closer inspection this must be another pro-democracy documentary keeping hope alive. But otherwise, the apparent propaganda attempt withered on the vine.
Trying to unravel more of the mystery, the China Media Project followed a confusing trail of people and projects and found that Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again is part of a set of documentaries that espouse Communist Party narratives.
Token foreigners and dubious overseas film festivals seem to have been involved to give the works a veneer of international pedigree. And seemingly at the centre of it all stands an indie filmmaker from China — an example, perhaps, of how Chinese artists can find themselves compelled to mix passion projects with propaganda.
‘Intelligent talent levels’
Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again is, by any measure, a mediocre film. It follows several Hong Kong residents as they talk about how a Covid-19 outbreak in early 2022 affected the city. The film is narrated by a middle-aged white man identified only as Alex, who says that he moved to Hong Kong in 2000.
A few times, people in the film link the outbreak to the chaos of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. For Henry, a Cantonese opera apprentice, his main memory of those demonstrations is that they delayed his bus to the theatre once and that he arrived just in time. When he got Covid-19, he recalls, a friend sent him medicine from mainland China.
Another character, a man called Dolphin, is described as “a dream-seeker from this bay” whose job is cold-calling people about investing in metaverse stocks. When talking to a colleague, he explains that future cooperation with mainland China, as well as the development of the Greater Bay Area, will lead to better economic prospects for Hong Kong. He praises “mainland China’s intelligent talent levels.”
Many conversations sound similarly stilted, if not outright scripted. In one scene, two people having a supposedly spontaneous conversation about how the Covid-19 pandemic reminds them of the 2019 demonstrations walk into the view of a stationary camera and stop to say goodbye. Alex’s voiceover is often oddly phrased, and in some scenes the footage doesn’t match the audio.
The film ends with Henry receiving the news that his theater has reopened, followed by news clips of the city loosening restrictions as case figures drop.
Then the credits roll — arguably the most interesting part of the film.
An absentee crew
The crew listed for Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again consists of people whose involvement is questionable, who deny having worked on the film, or who can’t be found.
Benoît Lelièvre, a French teacher and filmmaker who lived in China for several years, is credited as the director. How much he actually worked on the film is unclear. According to a post on Facebook, he left China in late 2019 and hasn’t been back since.
Lelièvre did not respond to requests for comment from CMP or other journalists. Sometime over the past two months, he appears to have deleted photos of himself posing next to promotional materials for the film from his LinkedIn page. “Still in Cannes for a few days where I presented to the film market the last two docus, which I signed and shot in China,” his post read, “and met again many friends.”
Aside from the two people listed as consultants, CMP could identify none of the crew members listed in the credits. All but one of the crew members listed as having been involved in the making of the Hong Kong film have non-Chinese names. The credits mention no production company. Nor do they credit the narrator, “Alex.” They list a co-producer, but not a producer.
Who, then, made Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again? Several connections suggest it could have been Chinese documentary director Jin Huaqing (金华青) or his Hangzhou-based company, Jin Huaqing Film Studio.
Jin, 38, is an up-and-coming director whose most recent work, Dark Red Forest, about Tibetan nuns, was internationally well-received last year. In messages to China Media Project, Jin denies any involvement with Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again. But there are connections, including several similar films, which he refuses to explain.
For one, the Prague cinema that screened Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again shared the private Vimeo page containing the film with Deník N. The account was named “Huaqing Jin.” Within a day of the China Media Project sending Jin the link, the account’s name was changed to “little observer.”
In 2020, Jin’s Dark Red Forest took part in Visions du Réel, a Swiss film festival, as a “work in progress.” Jasmin Bašić, Senior Industry Consultant at the festival, gave feedback on the then-unfinished documentary and ended up being credited as a consultant.
It is the only link she can think of that would explain how she ended up listed as a consultant for Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again, a film she had never heard of before speaking with the China Media Project.
The China-Crete connection
The second consultant listed for Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again is Eleni Vlassi. She is a filmmaker as well as the artistic director and president of the International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra, or IDFI, a small film festival held yearly on the Greek island of Crete.
The festival has a strong, if strange, connection with China. In 2016, Jin’s The Tibetan Girl, a documentary about a Tibetan singer, won the Audience Award. For the following edition, according to the festival’s website, “IDFI has also the honour, this year, to welcome China Dream which is a spectacular coordination of our Festival with the 9 largest International Festivals of China.” This China Dream programme seems not to have been announced anywhere else.
Over the next few years, this international cooperation involved handing out awards to various individuals with no apparent link to filmmaking — including two “researchers” of traditional Chinese culture and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner — who instead seem mostly interested in bolstering their dubious credentials with foreign awards.
Jin attended IDFI at least twice, in 2018 and in 2019, when he was a member of the Jury for Young Filmmakers. Benoît Lelièvre also attended that year, and the three of them — He, Jin, and Vlassi — at one point during the opening ceremony shared the stage, photos on the festival’s website show.
A year earlier, the three of them also took part in the Silk Road Cup (International) Film Support Program, an event in Xian, in China’s Shaanxi province. They appear together in several images from the event, which was covered by local and national media, including China Central Television and China.com.cn, the government website run by the State Council Information Office.
The company hosting the event, Haining Film and Culture Communication Co Ltd, has worked closely with local propaganda departments to produce films that “tell China’s story well,” a phrase currently synonymous with the Communist Party’s domestic and international propaganda efforts.
The company’s CEO, Chinese film producer Wang Haining (王海宁), told those gathered at the event that he welcomed “friends from all over the world to come to Xi’an, China to exchange films, invest in films, and promote films.”
Also present as deputy chairman of the event was Li Xuezheng (李学政), head of the Golden Shield Television Center of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s highest national defence body. Li, who leads propaganda film and television production for the People’s Liberation Army, told the media during the event that “telling China’s story well” was the “true path toward internationalisation and promotion” of Chinese film.
Despite intersecting with Vlassi and Lelièvre at these events, and despite sharing the stage, Jin says that he does not know Lelièvre, and that he has never cooperated with Vlassi. What makes these denials odder still is that Jin is credited with having co-directed documentaries with both of them.
The Xinjiang films
Supposedly, Lelièvre and Jin directed a 2021 documentary called Ripples, the second of the “the last two docus” Lelièvre previously identified on his LinkedIn account as projects he had “signed and shot in China.”
Ripples, too, is a film that promotes the Chinese government’s stance on a sensitive political issue – this time denying foreign accusations of forced labour in the cotton industry of Xinjiang, the region where the Chinese state has, over the past few years, placed over a million members of the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in indoctrination camps.
The film describes the effects of the resulting worldwide bans on Xinjiang cotton on Uyghurs living in Yiwu, a trading hub in Eastern China, according to reviews on filmfestivals.com — a website, one industry insider says, that publishes content without much in the way of editorial review. The site’s editor did not respond to messages from CMP.
Ripples does not appear to be available anywhere online. Jin denies having made it, and Lelièvre refuses to talk. The Xinjiang cotton issue flared up in late 2020, after he left China. Whether or not Lelièvre made the film, he did promote Ripples at the Cannes Marché du Films this year, according to the now-deleted photos from his LinkedIn page as well as a press release.
Also in 2021, according to the website of Vlassi’s IDFI, she and Jin co-directed Splendid Land, a film told through an English man reminiscing about a trip he made to Xinjiang several years prior, according to a filmfestivals.com blog post. It says, contrary to the systematic oppression reported in the region, that Xinjiang people are “living freely in their ideal beautiful home.”
A short clip is available on YouTube. Just two minutes long, it features no less than three separate scenes of Uyghurs dancing, a common trope, and plenty of odd phrases. “In the streets of ethnic customs, a lively life sonata is in the air,” says the narrator, who sounds unmistakably like the “Alex” who provides the voiceover for Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again.
Vlassi’s film did well at her own festival. According to the IDFI website, Splendid Land won the Best International Short Documentary Award as well as the Audience Award in 2021.
Jin, again, denies any involvement. Much like Lelièvre, nothing about Vlassi’s social media presence suggests she has visited China since the start of the pandemic. When contacted by phone, Vlassi asked CMP to send questions via text message, after which she never replied or answered further calls.
Hong Kong, Please Shining Again
Jin has one more propaganda documentary to his name, the 2020 film Hong Kong, Please Shining Again, available on YouTube.
In 15 minutes, the film gives the Chinese government’s version of the 2019 protests, explaining that these “radical violent crimes” were supported by “Western anti-China” forces, aided by middlemen like pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. The film ends with the fiction that the national security law is widely supported in the city. “Hong Kong and the Mainland are connected by blood,” it says.
Narrated with the baritone voice style typical of programs on state television in China, the film seems directed at a domestic audience. Regardless, Hong Kong, Please Shining Again won “Best Foreign Language Film” at Vlassi’s IDFI in 2020.
This apparent overseas recognition despite its stylistic affinities with Chinese state propaganda might point to an important aspect of the mystery surrounding Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again, the more recent film with an oddly reminiscent title.
Contrary to the other three films, which have barely any presence in Chinese online spaces, the 2020 film’s award win is cited and celebrated in several places, including in Party newspaper Guangming Daily.
Junius Ho, a pro-China Hong Kong politician, mentioned the film on his Facebook page in June 2020, sharing a related report from the news outlet HK01. Another positive report on the film was published by the Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper linked to China’s central government.
All of these reports note the film’s IDFI award, and both the Ta Kung Pao and HK01 quote Vlassi as saying: “We believe that this film is a good way to convey to the world the voice of China, and the voice of Hong Kong, and allow the world to see the people behind the chaos in Hong Kong, and to see the true record of China’s defence of national sovereignty and justice. We hope more people can see the real Hong Kong.”
Vlassi did not respond to a request to confirm this direct quote, which resembles the token foreign voices often presented in Chinese state media to lend support with perfect Party platitudes.
Clearly, foreign recognition was an important step in promoting Hong Kong, Please Shining Again in the Chinese-language press as a film legitimising the Chinese government’s position on events in Hong Kong.
Partaking in such overt propaganda productions would seem like a departure for Jin, whose films Dark Red Forest and The Tibetan Girl are subtly critical of how the Chinese government treats ethnic minorities. But he wouldn’t be the first independent-minded Chinese filmmaker to, at times, play along with the government.
Zhang Yimou, celebrated for movies critical of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution like To Live, was criticised for directing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Filmmakers change their movies to secure permission for domestic distribution. In 2009, a whole list of stars lined up for small parts in propaganda blockbuster The Founding of a Republic.
It’s not uncommon in China for indie filmmakers, whose works are often too politically sensitive to be shown domestically, to take on work for state departments. “I also made several propaganda documentaries for China Central Television,” one Chinese documentary director tells the China Media Project. “Sometimes it’s for money, sometimes the topics are interesting.”
Producer and promoter
When journalists at Deník N looked into Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again, they found out that a man named Wang Jie (王杰) had organised the Prague screening and arranged for an unmarked advertorial to be published about it in English-language publication Prague Morning. Interviewees said that he had referred to himself as the film’s producer.
Wang — who blocked China Media Project on WeChat as soon as he found out he was speaking with a foreign journalist — is a major shareholder and the managing director of a company called Film Casting Culture Co Ltd (江苏片投影视文化有限公司), located in Nanjing, eastern China. It has made at least one propaganda title for a local government in Shaanxi province.
Jin, too, has a Shaanxi connection. In 2017, he signed a contract with Shaanxi Cultural Industry Investment Group, a state-owned company majority owned by the Party’s provincial propaganda department, though it is unclear what their agreement was about. When asked, Jin denies knowing Wang, despite the latter being listed as the cinematographer for two of Jin’s short films, Sheep Dotting Hillsides and The Tibetan Girl.
Besides making films, Wang and his company dabble in the world of make-believe movie competitions. According to a 2019 Hollywood Reporter article, the emergence of online platforms such as FilmFreeway, where filmmakers can submit their work to festivals around the world, has spawned thousands of festivals that run the gamut from minor but genuine events to downright scams that are out for the submission fees of aspiring filmmakers.
The Prague Film Festival, where Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again was supposedly shown to great acclaim, does not exist. But it does have a page on FilmFreeway and a website. Its domain, registration history shows, was linked to someone who filled out “NanJing” as their location.
Photos on the website purportedly showing a screening of Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again were repurposed from an actual event held more than two years ago at the cinema mentioned in the advertorial. In 2021, Ripples also reportedly won awards at the Prague festival.
According to several business listing websites, including one in Jiangsu province where Wang Jie is reportedly located, Film Casting Culture at one point set up two websites, “Film Festival Sign-Up Site” (电影节报名网) and “Movie Submission Site” (片投网), that sound like Chinese equivalents of FilmFreeway.
The sites claimed affiliation with several of the biggest global film festivals, including the Oscars, Cannes, and the BAFTAs – but neither is now online. The business listings on Film Casting Culture also claim that the company began cooperating in 2019 with a New York-based film company called Intellect Pictures to set up an international network of film festivals.
Intellect Pictures only deepens the sense of mirage and fakery. The company appears nowhere in US corporate listings, in New York State, or elsewhere. Its website includes obviously faked bios of company employees, many of them repetitive and overlapping. Several bios are cross-listed at IMDB, an online database of information related to film and television, having been posted by “Alex Davidson,” listed as the founder of Intellect Pictures.
In Prague, according to Deník N, another documentary called Success Formula was screened alongside Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again. This Intellect Pictures production, which is all over the company’s website and social media accounts, combines interviews with celebrities to distil “a universal formula for success that humanity may eventually be able to use,” according to a trailer.
This bizarre doubleheader was arranged by Wang Jie and a middleman, who, according to Deník N, claimed to be Alex Davidson. He said he lived in Canada and that he is the Alex who narrates the Hong Kong film. His WhatsApp profile, however, was linked to a Russian phone number and identified him as Sergei, a discrepancy he declined to explain to the Czech news site.
When contacted by the China Media Project, his story changes. He calls himself Sergei and says that Alex Davidson is one of his many colleagues at Intellect Pictures. His collaboration with Wang Jie in Prague was the only time the two worked together, Sergei claims.
But Nanjing’s Film Casting Culture and the mysterious Intellect Pictures seem to have set up a wide array of film festivals that appear mostly fictitious. Possibly because FilmFreeway requires every newly registered festival to prove it has secured a venue, in-person events have been organised once for several of the festivals, such as the decidedly low-key 2017 edition of the “Atlanta Award-Qualifying Film Festival.”
But later “events” seem only to involve the announcing of winners online, alongside photoshopped images to pretend otherwise. On the Atlanta festival’s FilmFreeway page, deadlines are coming up for a 2023 edition.
The jewel in the crown of the two companies’ film festival line-up is World Film Fair, an event promising to bring together film festivals from all over the world, a trailer posted to the Intellect Pictures YouTube channel announced. According to Baidu Baike, an online Chinese encyclopaedia, the event’s deputy director is Li Kang, who is the co-founder of Wang Jie’s Film Casting Culture.
Joy Dong, who runs the small Joy House Film Festival in Australia, was invited via email to join World Film Fair’s event in 2018, at New York City’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, and flew all the way to the US. At the festival, attendees could mingle with other filmmakers and watch films, but the organiser never showed up, Dong and another attendee, filmmaker Jillie Simon, told the China Media Project. “It was weird,” Simon said.
Taking honours home
Whatever the intentions behind these festivals, and events like Eleni Vlassi’s IDFI, they bestowed honours on the four documentaries, all advancing Chinese state narratives, that were central to their promotion. Through international wire services, press releases could be published about supposed film festival successes for all four titles.
Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again could claim, in its press release, to have won “Best Documentary” at the Prague Film Festival – the non-existent festival where the previous year Lelièvre’s collaboration with Jin Huaqing, Ripples, had been the audience favourite. In the same way, Splendid Land, with its whitewashing of life in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, Please Shining Again could flaunt wins at IDFI or boast about a full festival circuit schedule.
It’s unclear which company or companies produced and funded these four films. One of the blog posts about Splendid Land says it was made by Jin Huaqing Film Studio. Several of the press releases were labelled as having been paid for by a company called Star International Culture and Media, which could be the unofficial English name for a Chinese company or could be entirely fictitious. The Gmail addresses provided along with the press releases do not exist.
Whoever ultimately paid for the production of these four films, it seems they do not wish to be found — mysterious behaviour in an industry built on self-promotion. One possible explanation is that the whole point was that these pro-China films could simply do their magic overseas, while any affiliation with state entities and their propaganda objectives remained behind the curtain. This bid for plausible deniability is certainly a facet seen in other kinds of Chinese state propaganda.
Puzzlingly, it’s difficult to ascertain the documentaries’ true audience. Three of the four films have almost no footprint on the Chinese internet, and foreign audiences were given little to no opportunity to watch them. Perhaps, this was all a bureaucratic exercise by some national or provincial-level government office that had been told to do its part for China’s global image building — and needed fancy-sounding festival awards to show it had done its job.
In many cases, the Chinese government agencies conducting external propaganda, eager to publicise results at home, openly claim cooperation or association with foreign media or other organisations when the relationships involved are purely commercial, such as hiring public relations services or renting event venues. Under similar pressure, state media must issue annual “social responsibility reports” for which one metric is how they have conducted “external communication.”
It would be another example of what has been criticised by some scholars in China as “the internalisation of external propaganda (外宣内宣化). This internalisation sometimes refers to the highly nationalistic and even antagonistic tone of the government’s external propaganda, which plays to more extreme domestic audiences while actually alienating foreign ones.
Another facet of this internalisation is the need for those carrying out external propaganda, including government agencies and film production companies, to sell their actions to the most important audience of all: Party leaders at the top, like Xi Jinping, who have enjoined them to go out and “tell China’s story well.”
Whatever the full story behind the screen, these films and their puzzling promotional materials are clear examples of how Chinese attempts to engage with the world can be clumsy affairs. Forgoing transparency to appear credible, they ultimately achieve entirely the opposite.
CMP Director David Bandurski contributed additional research for this article.