|Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou. Image LA Times.|
Last weekend the Los Angeles Times carried a long profile of Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou, who I’ve quoted more than once here at Screening China. Zhou is known in China to English and Chinese-reading audiences alike, thanks to his writings for the English-language newspaper China Daily. Zhou’s reviews and commentaries make for some of the more intelligent sections of the state-owned, notoriously dull paper, although as the LA Times piece makes clear, his writing is heavily constrained by the censorship and corruption underlying all Chinese media.
The profile highlights one of the most corrosive forces in Chinese journalism – the infamous hong bao, or red envelopes full of cash, regularly handed out to journalists in all kinds of situations in exchange for publicity and favourable coverage. The practice is as endemic in film criticism as it is in other sectors of Chinese media.
It’s hard to convey to anyone who has never worked in China just how pervasive the culture of bribery is, and how hard it can be to avoid. When I worked at The Beijinger magazine, for example, there was more than one occasion when I attended premieres or media screenings and later found a couple of large denomination notes in amongst the press materials I was handed at the door. As the LA Times profile points out, this culture of corruption doesn’t do much for the state of film criticism, or Chinese cinema in general:
“China is the fastest-growing movie market in the world, with box-office receipts in 2011 rising 29% from the previous year to break the $2-billion mark. Yet film criticism here remains a practice stunted by corruption and bribes, state censorship and the culture’s emphasis on personal connections, or guanxi, that makes penning negative reviews hard to do.”
As noted above, as well as negotiating corruption, critics face the problem of sometimes upsetting industry players in a society in which connections and personalised favours are all important. Raymond Zhou gives one example: “Zhang Yimou’s handler told me that they deliberately excluded me in their press screening for A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, which later got widely and vehemently panned by critics. I guess they knew it’s a bad movie and there’s no chance I would write glowingly about it.”
Of course similar issues characterise the practice of film criticism the world over. Here in Australia, I’ve had publications refuse to run negative reviews to avoid friction with advertisers, and much so-called criticism in Australia is simply thinly veiled publicity or banal opinion penned by sometimes astoundingly ignorant writers.
One thing Western film reviewers generally don’t have to deal with, however, is overt governmental censorship, especially when it comes to covering work made outside China’s official state-sanctioned production channels. The LA Times profile recounts a story from Li Hongyu, a film critic for the respected Southern Weekly newspaper and the Chinese-language edition of Time Out Beijing:
“Li recalled that in 2003, he wrote up an interview with Wang Xiaoshuai for Southern Weekly whose art-house film Drifters, about a down-and-out Chinese returnee from the United States, was being screened at the Cannes Film Festival. On press day, the piece was pulled after orders from ‘up there,’ Li said, gesturing with one hand toward an unseen entity. Some 40,000 or so papers that had already been printed were pulped.”
The LA Times profile offers a sobering peek into the chronic problems of corruption and censorship that are holding back both Chinese media and cinema, and preventing the nation’s culture generally from taking a place on the world stage commensurate with China’s economic status. Unfortunately, with controls only tightening, the situation shows little sign of changing soon.
You can read the full profile of Raymond Zhou here.