HONG KONG — Counterfeit money is hidden. Police uncover the stash. Justice is served.
It may sound like a film noir plot, but the fake bills had been used as props in an award-winning crime thriller filmed in Hong Kong. And the two suspects — who received suspended four-month sentences on Thursday — were not hardened criminal counterfeiters but members of a film production crew.
The question, local cinephiles say, is why the police even bothered to seek charges.
They say the case illustrates how onerous rules are needlessly hampering a local industry whose golden age of Bruce Lee kung fu films and Wong Kar-wai dramas seems long past, and which is now struggling to compete against rising competition from studios in South Korea and mainland China.
“It’s hypocritical,” Kevin Ma, the founder of Asia in Cinema, a news site for the regional industry, said of the convictions. Even as Hong Kong officials talk of supporting local filmmakers, he said, “they have these really weird, arcane laws that prevent the industry from putting in serious production values.”
In a statement, the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers called the sentence “unprecedented in the history of film industries around the world.” And the Hong Kong Film Arts Association said it was concerned because local laws governing the industry were hopelessly outdated and full of “gray areas that make it exceedingly easy for people in the industry to become accidentally entrapped.”
The two men convicted on Thursday, Cheung Wai-chuen and Law Yun-lam, are veterans of Hong Kong’s film industry who were charged in late 2015 with having more than 230,000 counterfeit notes in Hong Kong dollars and other currencies, according to local news reports. The police had found the bills in a vehicle and an office associated with the production crew. The fake currency lacked the proper permits for storage and transportation, authorizations that the film’s producers were responsible for securing.
The money was used on the set of “Trivisa,” a thriller about three criminals in the lead-up to the former British colony’s 1997 handover to China. “Trivisa” won five awards at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film, but it was later banned on the Chinese mainland — perhaps, observers said, because of scenes that show the criminals bribing Chinese officials.
“You could just go to it as a crime movie, but I’m sure it echoes what a lot of people feel about the handover and how the new boss is China, and not the U.K.,” said Ross Chen, founder of the website Love HK Film and a member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society.
Hong Kong’s Film Services Office regulates and promotes the city’s film industry. In a statement Friday, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which oversees the film services office, said that it received occasional enquiries on the use of prop money, and that it tried to “provide assistance” and “help resolve any problems.”
For many in the local film industry, the case is emblematic of how Hong Kong, a semiautonomous city of about seven million, is struggling to maintain its cultural influence at a time when Beijing’s soft power is increasingly dominant.
The film industry is perhaps best known for 1970s-era kung fu movies starring Bruce Lee and acclaimed ’90s-era dramas by the director Wong Kar-wai. But after reaching box-office highs in 1992, revenue plummeted about 80 percent over the next 15 years, to around $28 million in 2007, according to government figures. A rebound in 2015 reached about 30 percent of the 1992 peak.
Mr. Chen, of the film critics society, said that the idea that the counterfeiting charges were motivated by mainland politics seemed far-fetched to him, but he thought the film had plenty of critics in the mainland, especially because of its portrayals of some Chinese officials as corrupt.
He added that he did not consider the sentences on Thursday to be “punishment” for the film’s politically sensitive elements, though he did find them severe. “At worst, you’d think the prop makers should just get a warning, if not a small fine,” he said.
On Thursday, one of the defendants questioned the timing of the sentences.
“You’ve watched movies for years, and those of you who are enforcing the law have seen the issue but you didn’t say anything,” Mr. Cheung said to reporters outside the courthouse. “Why are you only speaking up now?”
Film industries around the world have tight rules governing the creation and use of fake currency in movies, and this is not the first legal case to arise from trying to use fake money that looks as realistic as possible. Anyone who prints fake money in Hong Kong must apply for permission. They must also make bills with “easily identifiable elements” to show that they are not real, Hong Kong’s acting secretary for financial services and the treasury, Joseph Chan, said in January.
Cheung Kit-yee, the judge in the “Trivisa” counterfeiting case, said that while the bills on the set were marked with the word “props,” it was clear only upon careful inspection, local news outlets reported. She said there was a risk that the bills could be used illegally.
But Mr. Ma, the film journalist, said that the case was just the latest example of local filmmakers cutting corners because they were unable to navigate the local bureaucracy. He said a few had even filmed car chases on local roads after failing to secure official permission to have them closed.
There is more than a hint of irony in the case, Mr. Ma said. One of the best-known moments in Hong Kong cinema is a scene in the 1986 film “A Better Tomorrow,” where the gangster Brother Mark, played by Chow Yun-fat, lights his cigarette with a counterfeit $100 bill.
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