Working my way through the backlog of recommended articles Criticwire readers sent this week to email@example.com (keep ’em coming, by the way), I found this piece from last weekend’s Los Angeles Times. Entitled “Reel China: He’s Beijing’s Answer to Roger Ebert,” it covers the work of Raymond Zhou, one of the most popular and widely read critics in China, as well as the compromises and pitfalls that all Chinese film critics deal with while reporting on a complex industry. Though China is the “fastest-growing movie market in the world,” it’s certainly not the fastest-growing movie criticism market. In a profession that should be a simple as seeing a movie and writing about it, things tend to get significantly more complicated:
“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.”
Zhou and other Chinese critics and journalists also share some jarring examples of said corruption; Zhou, for example, recounts the story of how he was “deliberately excluded” from the press screening of “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” because its director, Zhang Yimou, suspected he wouldn’t like it. Another critic, Time Out Beijing‘s Li Hongyu, shares a joke about a notoriously stingy local reviewer, who was offered an envelope full of cash to write a positive review — and an envelope with twice as much cash not to write anything at all. Though Zhou insists he’s never taken a bribe, he also acknowledged that he occasionally has to censor himself by not writing when his opinion is negative, and therefore potentially dangerous. “I don’t have the freedom,” Zhou told The Times. “[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.”
This is a sobering article, but let’s not get too pollyanna about our own situation. Though Zhou and his colleagues’ stories are extreme, they’re not that much more extreme than some of the things that go on in American film criticism. I’ve never witnessed, or heard of, anyone receiving monetary bribes to write a good review, but writers and broadcasters get plied with free trips to exotic locales for junkets and buttered up with free swag all the time. Most major American critics boast their own Zhang Yimou, directors who hate their work (and perhaps vice versa) and do their damnedest to ensure they receive as little access to advance screenings as possible. A few years ago, then-New York Press critic Armond White got into a well-publicized spat with director Noah Baumbach over an old review in which White suggested that Baumbach’s film was so bad it “might suggest retroactive abortion.”
Good film criticism is written in a vacuum, free from the pressures and influences of filmmakers or other critics. But real film criticism is often written in a vacuum-vacuum: instead of no pressure and influence, it’s all pressure and influence, and it’s therefore the critic’s job to navigate it all as skillfully as possible. Criticism, like everything else in the world of journalism, is at the mercy of readership and advertisers; and in the case of film reviews, the advertisers are the movies themselves. If you don’t think studios or personal publicists don’t occasionally complain to newspapers or websites about reviews they don’t like, you’re crazy. And if you don’t think they sometimes threaten to cut ads as leverage, you’re even crazier.
In other words: Chinese film critics deserve greater freedom of expression. And so do American film critics.