China Daily film critic Raymond Zhou inside a local Chinese movie theater. (Annie Ly )
Reporting from Beijing — — Raymond Zhou became China's most famous film critic by happenstance. It was 2001, and his work as the editor in chief of a bilingual high-tech website in Silicon Valley had been halved. With extra time on his hands, and unemployment looming, Zhou started writing Western-style movie reviews and sending them back to his home country.
The casual, chatty and accessible style — then utterly new to China, where musty academic film criticism was the norm — was a hit. Over the year, Zhou reviewed about 100 new films, from Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" to Steven Spielberg's "A.I." The reviews were published on the Web portal NetEase and Movie View, the most widely distributed film magazine in China. Just a year later, Zhou's reviews were collected into a volume published under the title "Live Reports From Hollywood."
"I wrote a typical movie review that you would see in the Guardian and the L.A. Times — that was why I gained popularity so fast. Nobody had written movie criticism like I did, when I did, in China," said Zhou, who first came to the U.S. in 1986.
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."
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. Consumers aren't in the habit of reading reviews, in part because they are attuned to the fact that the government, and filmmakers, work to ensure only articles they endorse see the light of day.
As such, the young and tech-savvy are increasingly turning to online forums, where outspoken views are easier to come by. Registered users on Douban, China's largest website devoted to movie, music and book reviews, topped 53 million in 2011.
"Most Chinese audiences just go the cinema randomly. Few of them read critics before they choose" what to watch, said Li Hongyu, a film reporter for the newspaper Southern Weekly who also pens a weekly movie review column for the Chinese-language edition of Time Out Beijing.
Li believes the lack of a robust criticism culture is holding China's film industry back. But there's a lot to change before that can happen, he said.
Sitting in a trendy cafe in downtown Beijing, he 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 1,500 renminbi [about $238] — but if you don't write one, we'll give you 3,000," Li said with a despairing chuckle.
Li says he doesn't accept hong bao. But the pressure hasn't stopped there.
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.
And in 2002, Southern Weekly published a two-page piece inviting cultural critics to comment on Zhang Yimou's hit "Hero" — and many criticized the blockbuster. Li heard later that Zhang "was not happy."
Zhou has likewise felt the constraints of the industry firsthand, largely because of his refusal to accept hong bao. "Zhang Yimou's handler told me [later] 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," Zhou said. "I guess they knew it's a bad movie and there's no chance I would write glowingly about it."