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Reel China: He's Beijing's answer to Roger Ebert

Raymond Zhou gained fame by writing Western-style film critiques for Chinese moviegoers, but avoiding the wrath of the state-run film industry is tricky.

March 11, 2012|By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Although Southern Weekly is known for its daring reporting, like many Chinese newspapers it contains scant movie criticism. Instead, it focuses on film news and big-shot interviews.

Most Chinese media organizations do not have a staff movie critic, and many publications that do print reviews use underpaid freelancers, who regularly accept red envelopes of cash from filmmakers, ostensibly to cover expenses.

"It's totally commercialized," said Zhang Ling, a critic completing a doctorate on film at the University of Chicago. Her Chinese-language cinema and culture blog on Chicago, written under the pen name Huang Xiaoxie, has more than 371,000 followers. "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."

The result, as Beijing Film Academy professor Zhang Xianmin pointed out in an influential essay titled "Daytime Booze, Nighttime Party: Thoughts on the Present State of Chinese Cinema," is that "people no longer have faith in film criticism."

But a handful of movie enthusiasts, independent filmmakers and writers are campaigning for change. Last year, Jia Zhangke, a leading Chinese director whose film "Still Life" won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, declared on China's largest micro-blogging site Sina Weibo that he had raised more than 1 million renminbi to sponsor good film criticism.

Jia's move came a year after a Chinese critic living in Denmark founded, a website inspired by Rotten Tomatoes that translates Western movie reviews into Mandarin and republishes reviews from Chinese media written by local critics.

Above all, the Web provides a platform where cynical "netizens" can give honest opinions about the arts. (Movie fans are by no means alone in this; authors who are heavily censored in print also often find opportunities online. When novelist Murong Xuecun, whose stories often deal with corruption, was barred from giving a speech he had prepared on the absurdity of censorship at a literature award ceremony in 2010, the author published it on his blog instead.)

On Mtime, a major ratings and review website, discussions are candid. "What is missing in Chinese movies compared with imported ones?" asked a group calling itself the "Moviekissers" in 2010.

"China is a socialist country. Worship for the superhero or individual hero is not allowed. It has to have a sense of collectivity. Movie heroes such as Batman or Spider-Man will be turned into national leaders in Chinese movies," raged one commentator under the name Booof. A slavish imitation of Hollywood movies, state censorship, commercialism and an emphasis on depicting the "harmonious" society peddled by the government in movies over real social criticism were also cited as flaws.

"For young people, the Internet is the most influential channel [to discuss movies] because anyone can get access to share and spread information," said Ye Xindai, 28, who writes under the pen name Mu Wei Er and is one of China's few recognizable movie critics, with more than 42,000 followers on Douban. Ye makes a living writing freelance for publications ranging from the Southern Metropolis Daily to the Economic Observer.

But the Web is not always free from censorship. When the film "Beginning of the Great Revival" was commissioned to mark the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party last year, Douban and Mtime disabled their star rating system and user reviews. The move was an apparent attempt to squash sardonic comments from Internet users about the historical epic, which was seen as heavily propagandistic.

Li believes China's film industry can only mature and improve if a more robust critical culture develops, free from corruption and censorship.

"Now there are too few good films in China, and of course it's related to censorship," he said. "If Chinese filmmakers can create more freely there will be more good films. If there are more good films, film critics will be more and more popular. And then more and more people will like the art and will think about the film, rather than just see it as entertainment."

"That is the future," he added with a resigned sigh, looking unconvinced that change will come. "It's crazy when China is becoming the biggest film market in the world."

Additional reporting by Catherine Zheng.

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