Nicole Kidman caused a stir when she came to Hong Kong mid-pandemic to shoot the Amazon-backed drama series “Expats.” But, awkwardly, the completed series is not available in the city where it is set.
The show, which includes Kidman’s Blossom Films as producer, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was uploaded to Prime Video on Friday last week. In Hong Kong, Prime Video subscribers seeking it out get the message “this video is currently unavailable to watch in your location.”
It remains unclear whether the city’s government has stepped in to prevent “Expats” from screening or whether Prime Video has given in to self-censorship. Both explanations point to an increasingly difficult environment for media and entertainment in the territory, which sometimes brands itself as “Asia’s World City.”
Contacted by Variety, Prime Video offered no comment. A Hong Kong government spokesman said in an emailed statement, “We have no comment on the operational arrangements of individual businesses.”
Adapted from the novel “The Expatriates” by Janice Y.K. Lee and directed by Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”), the series follows three American women living in Hong Kong. The series’ narrative examines the things women sweep under the rug, while also exploring issues of class and privilege. Variety’s review of the series called it “stunning and unsettling.”
Privilege was one of the many accusations flung at the show in mainstream media and internet chatter before a frame was shot in 2021 or a screenplay made public.
Wang and the series garnered criticism for the show’s perceived focus on the lives of a minority group of rich foreigners. Many of Wang’s social media posts through 2021 were also criticized for a seeming sense of entitlement and indifference to Hong Kong’s political context – she is a mainland Chinese-born American – and her demonstrably incorrect claims that she was making an independent movie.
The city was still reeling from the pro-democracy protests of 2019, which at one moment saw 2 million citizens take to the streets before turning sporadically violent in the following months. The anti-government defiance was met with brute force, partially stifled by the arrival of COVID and was firmly put to bed in July 2020 when Beijing injected national security laws directly into Hong Kong’s mini constitution.
Then, despite imposing harsh lockdowns and quarantine measures on its own population, the Hong Kong government in 2021 rolled out the red carpet for Kidman by giving her quarantine exemptions. At the time, this was “designated professional work … that contributes to the essential functioning and growth of Hong Kong’s economy.”
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily, labeled the production “tone deaf.” Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald ran a news analysis piece headlined, “How insensitive can she be?”
Contradicting one aspect of the pre-production criticism, the completed “Expats” does use an earlier period of pro-democracy protests, known as the 2014 Occupy Central movement, as a recurring backdrop to the stories of the three central characters and their immigrant maids.
That alone would seem to be enough to give “Expats” trouble with the Hong Kong government in the new National Security era. But the process remains murky.
Since July 2020, the city has equipped itself with a new film censorship law, denied screening permits to three films that were to have shown at the 2021 Short Wave Film Festival and witnessed the last-minute cancellation of the theatrical release of slasher film “Winnie the Pooh.” (The Winnie the Pooh character is a considered a playful insult against Chinese president Xi Jinping.) And, none of the international documentary films that were made about the events of 2019 have attempted releases in the city.
Hong Kong’s film censorship law does not apply to streaming services. But the National Security Law, which criminalizes the broadly defined acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, appears to do so.
That likely explains the removal of an episode of “The Simpsons” from the Disney+ streaming service, the closure of several media outlets not aligned with the government and the ending of long-running satirical cartoons by Zunzi in the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper.
With the notable exception of the ongoing Apple Daily-Jimmy Lai National Security trial, most recent instances of media control in Hong Kong have not been litigated. Instead, self-censorship has dominated and been attributed to amorphous behind-the-scenes and commercial pressures.
“Expats” has not been the only eyebrow-raising no-show in Hong Kong over recent weeks. The city’s annual drama awards were this month stripped of government subsidy and told they could no longer use a government venue. Funding body The Hong Kong Arts Development Council later explained that last year’s awards may have “directly or indirectly harmed or had a negative effect” by involving Zunzi and a freelance journalist who has challenged the police narrative of 2019. And, by cutting funding to the awards, the Council “reduces [its] risk of potentially breaching” the National Security Law.
If inviting the wrong cartoonist to an awards show is enough to stray too close to the National Security Law’s red lines, erring on the side of caution is clearly the safest course of action. And media operators may face more challenges by the end of this year.
The Hong Kong government this week began the process of introducing its own layer of security laws, known as Article 23, which are expected to cover treason; “insurrection, incitement to mutiny and disaffection, and acts with seditious intention”; theft of state secrets and espionage; sabotage; and external interference.
In the near term, the city’s lawmakers have voiced their displeasure over “Expats” and the support that was given to the show.
Lawmaker Doreen Kong Yuk-foon told the SCMP that the series put the government in an awkward position because the exemptions given to Kidman did not lead to a result that showed the city in an entirely positive light.
Another, Dominic Lee Tsz-king, said “the government should at least know whether what was being filmed would be good for Hong Kong’s image. From what I understand, it’s about how Hong Kong could be boring, and includes scenes of the illegal Occupy Central movement – these can’t be positive for Hong Kong.”