A gory, microbudget slasher film — in which the beloved children's book character Winnie the Pooh is a murderous psychopath — has been pulled suddenly from theaters in Hong Kong and Macau.

While the plot may not be everyone's cup of tea, there is concern that the decision to spike the British movie has less to do with the film's goriness and more to do with Beijing's suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong and specifically, the government's efforts to block an unlikely symbol of protest: the crop-top-wearing, pant-less bear.

"Winnie the Pooh has become a symbol for dissidents in China," says Rongbin Han, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. "So now the character alludes to Xi Jinping himself and the president doesn't like this."

Pulled with no explanation from Hong Kong and Macau

Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, written and directed by British filmmaker Rhys Frake-Waterfield, has become something of an internet sensation, exceeding all expectations with releases across Latin America and Asia. It was scheduled to start screening at more than 30 cinemas in Hong Kong and Macau on Thursday, but the distributor said all showings have been called off.

Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey will be canceled in Hong Kong and Macau, VII Pillars Entertainment said in a statement on Facebook.

The company added that the film "failed to meet the audience" and asked for the public's forgiveness. They offered no additional explanation and company officials did not respond to NPR's questions.

How Winnie the Pooh became a subversive symbol

The last minute removal from theaters marks the second time that the release of a Winnie-the-Pooh-based film has been blocked in China. But why?

The connection between Chinese leader Xi and Pooh can be traced back to 2013, when people on social media compared a photo of Xi and former President Barack Obama walking side by side to an image of Pooh and Tigger. The meme took off and for several years, government critics appropriated the character to make fun of Xi or lambaste his policies.

That prompted Beijing to censor the Chinese name for Winnie the Pooh and animated gifs of the chubby, somewhat dopey bear on social media platforms in 2017.

The University of Georgia's Han explained that it's not Pooh that's objectionable to Xi and the authoritarian regime, but the fact that critics are using the bear as a stand-in to denounce the government's policies.

That's why, he says, "the censorship machine" is constantly looking for perceived criticism, which often takes the form of seemingly benign images, coded plays on words, or no words at all. For instance, in November in a rare show of public protest, Chinese dissidents marched through the streets holding up blank sheets of paper, sending a silent message of defiance to the authorities.

Han noted that images or objects with Pooh's likeness are still permitted in China, but online is a different story. "Anywhere that online dissident groups are mobilizing, that's what triggers the nerve of this state," he said.

Given the history with the character, Han said he is surprised that the film got past the Chinese government's censorship system in the first place. Domestic and foreign films are all subjected to a strict pre-publication review system, and the government retains the right to ban any film that doesn't comply from being shown in theaters — or even from streaming online — within the country.

Other challenges included quota on foreign films

Michael Berry, director for the University of California Los Angeles Center for Chinese Studies, told NPR that a film like Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey would be up against a number of hurdles regardless of the Xi connection.

"Firstly there is a quota system in China that strictly limits the number of foreign films distributed; because of this quota, most studios submit big tentpole films like Marvel and DC superhero movies or big-budget war films. Smaller films often have trouble getting access to the market," Berry said.

The UCLA professor also noted that China doesn't usually welcome horror films because the country has no rating system. The thinking is that all films should technically be suitable for general audiences. "That provides inherent challenges when it comes to the horror genre," he said.

For now, audiences in Hong Kong and Macau will have to wait for the possibility of watching a bloodthirsty Winne the Pooh.

But as one would-be fan remarked, it may be coming to a streaming service near you. [Copyright 2023 NPR]