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 as “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 sentence.
“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.