Exiled Hong Kong Filmmakers Mark Controversial Anniversary With ‘Tiananmen’ Movie Project Set Amid the June 4 Political Upheaval

A group of independent filmmakers are set to direct “Tiananmen” (working title), a film paying homage to Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema in a story set against the backdrop of the ‘June 4 political upheaval.’

The project will likely stir a controversy as both the word Tiananmen and the June 4 date are taboo in the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) — they are reminders of the student-led pro-democracy movement that was brutally put down 35 years ago by the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to over a thousand.

More from Variety

The filmmakers say that their project, currently at development stage, is set in 1989 when the Hong Kong economy was booming and when, for a while at least, there was hope that Western-style democracy might take hold in mainland China. That hope briefly eased concerns about the handover of the territory from Britain to China in 1997.

Variety has not been able to verify the identities of the filmmaking collective as its members have so far only used pseudonyms and email communications. They describe themselves as “creatives [who] all have IMDB profiles on smaller films – as director, producer and scriptwriter.” “We are a collective[..] who are fans of 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong cinema. Most of us have connections to the city, either through family or have lived there at some point,” they added.

“The story is told through the eyes of a 20-something British DJ who lands in Hong Kong hoping to break into the film industry as an actor, but who soon learns that the only work open to him is dubbing English dialog for local kung fu movies. Other characters include a Hong Kong-born stunt actress who dreams of being a leading lady, a film company boss who sells low-budget Hong Kong action pictures to overseas buyers, and the company receptionist who supports the student protestors in Beijing. The film’s narrative will follow the intertwined lives of the main characters in the weeks leading up to June 4, and the immediate aftermath, and show how the tragedy profoundly changed their lives,” the filmmakers said in an email.

The group aims to fund production of the film through private sources. “We are hopeful that wealthy individuals who have left Hong Kong due to the loss of freedoms under the [2020] National Security Law will be the funders. Or, possibly crowd funding.”

Production of the film would, necessarily, predominantly take place far from Hong Kong or the People’s Republic of China, possibly in Australia, the U.S. or Canada. “Naturally INT sets circa HK 1989 (office, apartment, cafe etc) will have to be built and dressed. EXT footage [could] perhaps be shot in HK on the sly, as well as archival footage,” they said.

“The tragic events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 35 years ago today had a devastating impact on Hong Kong’s filmmakers. They expressed rage as well as fear, and many productions came to a stop as few people could concentrate amid the tears. Some members of the filmmaking community even took part in Yellow Bird, the underground movement that smuggled wanted student protestors out of mainland China to Hong Kong,” the group said in another email.

How much of the events of June 4, 1989, are known about in China is unclear.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin said Tuesday in a Fox News op-ed: “Compounding this tragedy is the fact that today, most people under the age of 40 in 21st-century China have little to no understanding of the events that unfolded on June 4, 1989. [..] educators are still forbidden from teaching about it, references to it are instantly removed from China’s heavily censored internet, and even public memorials for the victims are strictly prohibited.”

Hong Kong authorities in recent years have also limited Tiananmen Square commemoration events and removed physical symbols. Candlelit vigils were regularly held in the territory until 2019. Since that time, public commemorations have been prevented, first by COVID restrictions, latterly by the refusal of police to give their approval.

In recent days, eight people have been arrested in Hong Kong under the new Article 23 law, properly known as the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance. “Police pointed out that a woman in custody had exploited an upcoming sensitive date to repeatedly publish posts with seditious intention,” a government statement read.

The alleged offence took place “on a social platform anonymously with the assistance of at least seven arrested persons since April 2024, with content provoking hatred towards the Central Authorities and the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Judiciary, as well as inciting netizens to organize or participate in relevant illegal activities at a later stage.”

“You can’t even light a candle in public in HK on June 4 anymore, so they will try and do everything that can to shut this down,” said the filmmakers collective in another email.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.