Fake cash conviction for prop master on Hong Kong Best Picture winner Trivisa quashed because trial judge didn’t count all 233,079 notes
Cheung Wai-chuen successfully appeals against controversial guilty verdict
A film props master found guilty of possessing counterfeit money was cleared on appeal by the High Court on Monday, after the original trial judge was found to have erred in not individually inspecting each one of the 233,079 fake notes.
Still, Cheung Wai-chuen, who was initially handed a four-month suspended jail term, was warned by Mr Justice Albert Wong Sung-hau to be careful in the future when using fake cash that resembled real money.
Cheung, who was working on award-winning crime drama Trivisa before he was arrested, was convicted alongside colleague Law Yun-lam in May, and the judgment angered the city’s film industry, with filmmakers, actors, and professionals venting their fury at a decision they believed would have a severe impact on artistic freedom.
Law, who did not appeal his conviction, had borrowed 9,996 fake HK$1,000 banknotes from Cheung for a prank in 2016, the year the film was released. Police subsequently found the notes in Law’s car, and later discovered 223,083 more banknotes at Cheung’s props company.
The pair were charged, found guilty and sentenced this year, even though the banknotes were movie props, and clearly labelled as such.
While ruling in Cheung’s favour, the judge said it remained a “serious matter” for someone to hold fake banknotes which looked authentic, even though the cash was not intended for dishonest purposes.
“This is because it is hard to ensure the notes would not fall into the hands of those with ill intent,” he wrote, in a judgment handed down on Monday.
Two prop men convicted for carrying fake money from Hong Kong best picture winner Trivisa – because it was too realistic
“Even if it is for the purposes of film props, that is banknote props, they still have to be handled cautiously and in accordance with the law.”
Wong found Cheung had not been properly convicted, because the trial judge had not examined each and every one of the fake banknotes before concluding they could all be mistaken for real money.
In his 23-page ruling, Wong found that the bogus banknotes – despite deviating in colour and all being marked with the word “prop” – still resembled real banknotes to a great extent.
He had to acquit Cheung, however, as the trial judge had failed to do what he did.
He was “shocked”, he said, that Cheung claimed he did not know he needed permission from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to make the notes, given Cheung’s years of experience in the film industry.
He said it was not for the court to predict how this would affect the development of the industry, as it was his role to rule according to the evidence.
“But hopefully after this case, this rule will become well-known among the film sector and the public,” he wrote.
Lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the cultural sector, welcomed the court’s decision.
“This is a good ending to the whole saga. Professionals in the film industry should be relieved,” Ma said.
Ma also said industry figures had been meeting with government officials to discuss how to manage special props in the future.
“The Film Development Council has been coordinating the meetings ever since the pair were found guilty in May,” Ma said. “For the case of prop banknotes, the Monetary Authority has published guidelines after reaching an agreement with the industry’s representatives.”
Further discussions are now taking place with police regarding the use of prop police cars, Ma added.
Tenky Tin Kai-man, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers’ executive committee, said the committee would have to study the verdict before it could comment.
“I hope both the government and the industry can learn a good lesson from this case, and be motivated to work out some solutions to resolve the conflicts between film production and the existing laws,” Tin said.
“We hope the government can set up application channels for us to get their approval for using certain special props. Our productions should not be forced to take legal risks.”