China’s Chief Critic in the Land of Daytime Booze and Red Envelopes

Raymond Zhou (courtesy LA Times)

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore recently profiled Chinese film reviewer Raymond Zhou, and examined the perks and pitfalls of being China’s most visible and notorious critic:

Today, Zhou is the closest China has to a Roger Ebert-type personality. In addition to his day job as a reporter at the state-run newspaper China Daily in Beijing, he’s the author of a series of seminal Chinese books on Hollywood and remains a key contributor for Movie View, where he has been a columnist for more than a decade. Still, there are many things that he cannot – or will not – write, as the risk of isolation from the industry is too great.

“The one compromise I have not made, and I have made a point not to make, is that everything I do write represents my honest opinion. But there are a lot of things I don’t write. I don’t have the freedom. [It’s] like my hands are bound invisibly. If you meet a film director, it’s very hard to write a bad review. Chinese society functions on connections.”

Being a “Western-style” critic with an international perspective on cinema as both an artistic and industry undertaking that transcends the ubiquitous guanxi system, Zhou’s unique position has made him singularly aware of the unspoken social codes of the Chinese film industry. Li Hongyu, a film reporter for Southern Weekly and the Chinese-language edition of Time Out: Beijing, is quoted discussing the culture of bribery inherent in film criticism:

Sitting in a trendy cafe in downtown Beijing, [Li] recounts a joke about one particularly hard-to-please former critic. The critic (now a scriptwriter) was known for his scathing reviews of the often poor movies pumped out by the country’s film industry. At premieres, the critic, alongside other reporters, would be slipped a hong bao – or red envelope containing cash – by the production company in an attempt to buy a good review.

“The joke was like this: The film company told him if you write a film criticism, we’ll give you 1,500renminbi [about $238] – but if you don’t write one, we’ll give you 3,000,” Li said with a despairing chuckle.

Jokes aside, the reality of hong bao-pushing is widespread throughout many areas of the Chinese film industry, as well as the industry demons of power-jockeying, censored reviews, and pressure from producers and government-run studios alike. Sebag-Montefiore quotes Zhang Ling, a critic and blogger who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago:

“Film firms and marketing agencies have started giving out large gifts – so if an envelope contains 1,000 renminbi and you moderately like the movie, you hype it. Right now, Chinese film criticism is controlled by power and money.”

Zhang Xianmin

Perhaps making moot these outrageous bribery attempts and sway of public interest, the article also makes reference to Zhang Xianmin‘s essay “Daytime Booze, Nighttime Party: Thoughts on the Present State of Chinese Cinema,” which appeared on this blog in January 2011. Taking the pulse of everything from film festivals to the Chinese public’s relationship to mainstream cinema, Zhang’s incisive essay denounces the “games” played to manipulate a culture of criticism in which the public has long since lost its confidence:

In the most recent decade, film criticism in China has become commercialized. That is why people no longer have faith in film criticism but in awards. Although judging a film in this manner is extremely narrow-minded, it is the only credible way at the present to gauge the artistic value of a film, just like Churchill’s comments on democracy – he said that it is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

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