Raymond Zhou, China's best-known film critic, has covered the mainland's film industry for 15 years. The author recently released a new book, A Practical Guide to Chinese Cinema 2002-2012 , which delves into the burgeoning film market. He talks to Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
China's film criticism industry is marred by corruption, including the blackballing by film companies of critics who write bad reviews, and the common practice of giving out (red packets) to reviewers.
I have made it a habit not to take hong bao from film companies. One year, I watched a preview and left before they started handing out hong bao, and I got a text message asking for my bank account. The film company said it would deposit [the money] in my account. I said: "Thank you, but I'm already paid by my employer." The company blacklisted me. At an open screening I was kicked out when someone from the company spotted me in the audience. About 10 minutes into the movie there was an announcement: "Raymond Zhou, please come out. Or we will stop the screening!" I became the only film critic in Chinese history who was kicked out of a screening.
You write for the state-run . Have you ever felt compromised?
Most of my film writing runs in the Chinese-language press, and I reserve only a few topics for China Daily whose readership is mostly expatriates and people outside China. The only time I ran into a little problem was with another state-run newspaper, whose editors asked me for a review of The Founding of a Republic, which was widely considered a propaganda film. I texted the editor that I liked it, but for reasons he might not have expected. I said it's subversive in its undercurrents and my review would make that clear. And he said: "Sorry, we cannot run that." There are reviews I want to write but cannot publish, but I don't make any compromises with anything that is published. I'd rather not say anything than say things that may misrepresent my opinions.
How do bloggers fare compared to more traditional media?
People tend to say extreme things on blogs or microblogs simply for sensationalism. These internet platforms provide an alternative, but the best writing is still in traditional media because the best writers tend to get a lot of requests from editors.
Hollywood is bending over backwards to do co-productions with China. What do you think of this development?
I sound a pessimistic note on co-productions in my book. I have been following the trend for many years and have noticed the negative ramifications such as cultural clashes. Earlier this year, I was on a judging panel for a Hollywood-organised project contest in Beijing. Xue Xiaolu [writer and director of the wildly popular Finding Mr. Right] and I reached the same conclusion about which candidates would have potential in the Chinese market, but the American judges held totally different opinions. Their "best" would never fly in China. We realised that for many stories a co-production may not be the best option. I believe it is more feasible to simply target one market even if it is a co-production.
You have a chapter called "China's Obsession with The Oscars". Can you explain why?
The Academy Award is the ultimate holy grail for Chinese filmmakers even though some in China try to brush it off. It results from an inferiority complex. Now that China is trumping Hollywood in the domestic market, people are looking overseas where Chinese films have not gained much traction or carried so-called "soft power". For that to happen, the first thing is to get rid of all the restrictions so Chinese filmmakers can give full play to their creativity.
Another chapter covers sex on Chinese screens. How is sex treated in cinema on the mainland?
Sex has been a taboo in Chinese culture, not just the cinema. But there has been a subtle loosening of restrictions. You may encounter more titillation on the Chinese screen than you expect.
Finally, how does censorship and the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television affect cinema made in China? Can fantastic films be made with such restrictions?
Overall, film censorship is more relaxed than before. But still it is very erratic. One film with an obvious gay character may pass the censors while another one with much less gay content could fail to get the green light. I did one study of all the Oscar-winning films (for the best picture category) from 1970 onwards, and only five could have passed Chinese censors (had they been Chinese films). The whole fantasy or sci-fi genre could be denounced as superstition. But the system does have one unexpected positive effect: it forces Chinese filmmakers to use unconventional and innovative ways to express themselves.