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Chinese film criticism: The rising of a new wave

film-critic-china.jpgIt may be surprising for you to learn that in a country with more than one billion people, the fastest growing film industry in the world, and a 10 billion rmb (1.5 billion usd) box office gross in 2010 alone, there is hardly any professional film criticism accessible to its public.

When I say hardly any, I mean that there is an absence of professional film critics who work for major, national publications and media outlets, and thus a lack of regular film reviews of new Chinese movies, at least for the mass audiences. Sure, there are some academic and/or bureaucratic film publications that are read by few, and others that are commercially centered whose readership is small and reserved. The majority of active, up-to-date film criticism in China today comes from blogs and websites started by film lovers.

Youth Film Journal 《青年电影手册》 can be ordered online via Amazon China:

Issue 1: http://www.amazon.cn/dp/B00134CN3E

Issue 2: http://www.amazon.cn/dp/B002H9WGMW

Issue 3: http://www.amazon.cn/dp/B003DIV22Q

Note: The original Chinese version of the interview will be coming soon in a link. Leave a comment if you wish to see it.

I found this out the hard way. Upon arriving in China, I searched futilely for weeks for Chinese film criticism. My questions were often met with blank stares and prolonged silences. The concept of film criticism was simply foreign to most people not working in the industry, as evident in my daily encounters with family, friends, and strangers. Even within the film circle, in my conversations with filmmakers and professionals, there was little if any acknowledgment of the existence of any kind of consistent, quality film reviewing in China. I asked for specific names of film critics currently at work and did not receive a single one.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive study and I could have just been talking to the wrong people. However, the fact that some of the most well known independent filmmakers in BeiJing are unable to answer such a simple question speaks volumes to the issue at hand. When I asked what kind of media coverage independent filmmakers receive for their films in China, the answer was that it mostly comes through word of mouth, personal connections, or social media (still a relatively new concept). When asked whether journalists from major publications review their films, the reply was that rarely does that happen, and in the event that it does, the journalists usually expect to receive some kind of monetary compensation ("red pocket") for the coverage, which will usually result in a "good" review. If there is no red pocket, then the review may not be so "good."

A natural curiosity gradually turned into sheer befuddlement. So it was in this particular frame of perplexed mind that I first met Wang Yang at the Sundance/CNEX Film Forward documentary filmmakers workshop this April in BeiJing.

When you first meet Wang Yang, you can easily pass him as one of the millions of young men living in China today. With his longish hair and casual stride, there is nothing pretentious or revealing at first glance.

What you may not know is that he is the founder of the first independently published, professional film journal in China today, named Youth Film Journal 《青年电影手册》.

wang_yang.jpg Youth Film Journal is a film publication that started in 2006 by Wang Yang and his friends, stemming purely out of frustration of the barren landscape of film criticism and fueled by a vision to fill such a void. The journal is published in Chinese bi-annually, and boasts an impressive collection of content ranging from in-depth film reviews to feature critiques, trend analysis to special interviews. The contributors are an equally eclectic group, consisting of academics, critics, filmmakers, and cinephiles alike. Publishing quality is excellent and each issue stands on its own as a collectible publication with its unique focus and collection of articles. A recent issue, for example, features a 12 page article by director Jia ZhangKe on female Chinese filmmakers that is part memoir and part reflection, alongside an entire section on Chinese documentaries, with another section focusing on criticism of mainstream Chinese films, as well as a sizable chunk devoted to Taiwan cinema in the 21st century. Think of a Chinese version of McSweeney's, but on film, and that is the kind of professionalism and quality to be expected here.

youth_film_handbook.jpg

Our meeting almost didn't happen, as Wang Yang had already left the venue at the end of the night and was called back by a mutual friend. We sat down and within minutes realized that we both studied law and wrote about film. The next day he sent me three issues of Youth Film Journal that I devoured right away, and found within a wealth of information that began to quench my thirst of knowledge for the current Chinese cinema scene. It should be noted that the cost of the latest issue, a bundle of 252 pages of solid loveliness, costs 36rmb ($5usd), and that is considered somewhat pricey. Another reason to visit China: books are ridiculously cheap there.

As a film lover living in North America, film criticism is an indispensable part of my cinematic landscape. Even for the mass audiences, film reviews is a familiar concept and embraced often. It is therefore unfathomable to me that in a land that produced over 500 films last year and plans to have 20,000 theater screens operating by 2015, that professional film criticism, as we know it, simply does not exist. How can this be? What is it doing to the Chinese film industry? What does it mean for the future of Chinese cinema?

These are important questions, and I thought it best to start the discussion with someone who is in the unique position of holding multiple perspectives as a cinephile, a film critic, a film journal editor, and a filmmaker living and working in China today. Below, Wang Yang has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions. The written interview was conducted in Chinese, and has been translated by me into English.

Grace Wang (GW): How did you get into film, first as a fan, then a critic, and now a filmmaker?

Wang Yang (WY): My family seems to have a fated link with film. My father has some relatives who were working at the XiAn film production company. When I was small, I used to be taken to the set to see film shoots, and I remember being fascinated. My interest in cinema just kept on growing ever since, till finally I thought that I should work in film. During high school I frequented movie rental stores. At that time I liked watching Hong Kong cinema and Hollywood blockbusters. Suddenly one day I saw Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together" and was very shocked. I realized that a film can be shot like this: breathtaking while expressing such different feelings and emotions. That film watching experience further deepened my desire to work in film. And then of course I started watching large amounts of films on DVDs, gradually learning about the history of world cinema and forming my own cinematic eye as well.

At the same time of watching films, I also read a lot of film criticism books, especially the earlier film theory books, which triggered my interest in the internal structure and expressions of a film, the use of time and space, and the relationship between truth and reality of our existences. I started writing large volumes of film criticisms. Well, earlier on they weren't really film criticisms, but more like keeping a film critique journal. I wrote 300,000 words in one year. That was the peak of my writing passion. Then as I continue to analyze films more deeply, I felt that I should create a professional film publication, and that's where the idea of Youth Film Journal came from.

The more I thought, the more I wrote, and it was only natural to consider diving into the creative part of the process. The hugely complex nature of Chinese contemporary society also motivate people like me to step outside of abstract concepts and ideas and to try to present more realistic criticisms and expressions through concrete visuals. I then had the chance to shoot my first film, "Transition - Space," a documentary about the diminishing of rural culture and the irony of modern society living in villages on the outskirts of a big city.

GW: Once you had the idea for a film publication, how did Youth Film Journal actually become a reality?

WY: In 2006 my friend Song JianJun and I started setting up Youth Film Journal. At the time we've been feeling that for a long time there was not a properly published, consistent film publication in China. We believe that cinematic issues should be discussed in a serious forum in the landscape of world cinema. We especially wanted to actively introduce and discuss the state of Chinese independent cinema. To do so we needed a publication that gets to the heart of the matter, to not only recommend and critique films, but also through film criticism create a sort of intellectual synergy that interact with the current state of cinema today. At that time there was a lot of difficulties starting up such a thing. Suddenly two young people had an idea, but when we approached many publishers no one was willing to take us on. It really was fueled purely by passion. In the end our first issue finally was published in 2007. I remember the introduction of that first issue was titled "Our New Wave." The first issue was more of a call of passion. From the second issue onwards things calmed down a bit and there was a lot more in-depth organization and dissections. Many important Chinese critics also actively joined as contributors.

I should mention that starting from the second issue there was an important change in staff. Cheng QingSong is a film critic and screenplay writer who joined us as Editor in Chief then. We hoped that under his management and direction the Youth Film Journal will have a bright future.

GW: What did you envision when you first created Youth Film Journal?

WY: Youth Film Journal is basically an expression of a hope: to shine a new light upon the non-official stature of film critics in China, and to increase the accessibility of such criticisms by the public. I hope that through a systematic organization to revamp the "cinephilia culture," which is borne from the masses, and place it right beside traditional cinema itself, to actively encourage those two cultures to interact with each other, with the readers and audiences alike. I also hope to create a professional and thoughtful publication that serves as a link between those serious, quality film criticisms already existent on the web, and to connect even more film critics together.

In the future, an intellectual/spiritual quality needs to be distilled from Chinese film criticism. Chinese cinephilia culture should build up an intellectual base, and from within its film critics can better use all the communication channels to encourage the building of a blossoming film culture.

GW: What is the readership of Youth Film Journal like now, and how do you envision it growing in the future?

WY: Our readership is very diverse, including the academic and film critic circle, other disciplines that are interested in learning about cinema, and most of all young film lovers. In the feedback we've been getting on the web it seems that large number of cinephiles and young people, especially the slowly growing university students demographic, are our main readers. Many people in their feedback expressed great passion and professionalism. We feel that this is a generation of promising film lovers. I believe that there are many movers and shakers amongst them and one day they will grow up and trigger a fundamental change in Chinese cinema.

GW: Aside from Youth Film Journal, in what other venues do film criticisms exist in China?

WY: This is just a general introduction. Many excellent film critics are gathered on the web at certain sites. There are also many people writing quietly and thoughtfully on their own -- to be discovered and recommended, much of the responsibility which lies with the media.

http://cinephilia.net -- a group of quality film critics

http://douban.com/ -- a place for individual bloggers/film critics with their pages

http://mtime.com -- more a site for film fans

Below are some examples of personal sites of film bloggers:

http://www.douban.com/people/daqihupi/ http://www.douban.com/people/windbo/ http://www.douban.com/people/film101/ http://www.douban.com/people/Tati/ http://www.douban.com/people/hu-di/ http://www.douban.com/people/1140109/ http://www.douban.com/people/2236316/ http://www.douban.com/people/yunfeiyang2046/ http://www.douban.com/people/elfff/ http://www.douban.com/people/MovieL/

Chinese film criticism also comes in part from academics, who take more of a social studies approach to cinema.

GW: Along with the rapid development of Chinese cinema, so are its audiences. What do you think of this process?

WY: In the past ten years, DVD culture exploded in China, in particular due to the wide spread of piracy it allowed the masses of Chinese audiences to access world cinema, both the classics and the contemporary gems. It is on this basis that Chinese cinephilia culture gradually developed. These film fans started with those in the industry, the filmmakers, and then expanded to the cultured middle class, and now the young intellectuals. In a way this is kind of like a cultural revolution, but much more low-key. The Chinese young people can from the comfort of their homes watch thousands and even tens of thousands movies, from all periods, of all genres and languages, all over the world. These young people not only watch the films - they analyze them, critique them, and even want to make them. In this process the level of film appreciation is constantly being elevated - from watching a film, to critiquing it, to learning about its filmmaker, to collecting further materials and knowledge. If there isn't enough information in Chinese, people translate them from other languages and then share them on the web. Film literature is very popular in China these days, and mostly they are those profiling certain directors, and also some of the classic film criticism books. Many private film groups also formed who host their own private screenings and discussions. As the understanding of world cinema gradually increases, some of these people's film knowledge and level of critique will rise to a certain standard, which differs greatly from the traditional sense of film critics. When that time comes, I think China will finally have film critics of its own that are akin to those in the west.

What follows is also lots of discussion, and that entirely takes place on the web because it is simply too difficult to do so in other channels in China. Through the World Wide Web, many people can access your perspectives; this wide interaction elevates the discussions and criticisms to a higher level. Now, the new wave of Chinese film criticism is still growing, and its main field is on the web. The creation of Youth Film Journal stems from the hope to increase these new film criticisms and their social impact, and in turn help elevate the general quality of Chinese cinema itself. At the very least we can help to refuse garbage and mainstream cinema. In a way our thinking is that even if our generation cannot create something substantial, through our motivation and efforts, at least we can refuse something. This is a long-term preparation. As society produces more and more young people who delve into film and film criticism, and through exposure and interactions with more and more films and film literatures, and through DVDs and other accessible formats to share with more and more others, this new wave can build up through time to create a group of not just film fans, but intelligent, sharp film critics or even filmmakers.

GW: How do you think the contents of Youth Film Journal compares to other Chinese film criticism online and in other publications? Are there any commonality and/or difference between these criticisms depending on the forum in which they exist? How do they affect each other and in turn, the state of Chinese cinema today?

WY: Nowadays most film critics come from the web. Their articles are also being forwarded and passed around on the web. However, restraints of the web are also distinctive, and that is the fact that in the virtual world the right of speech is not a privilege, but something that everyone can enjoy. Being read and listened to, however, has become a privilege. This may diffuse the power of quality articles, and make it impossible to form a professional media platform, therefore making it difficult to create film critics of wide respect and persuasion. A more mature market is needed to make this happen - for example a film critic association or governmental/community funding for such organizations. More community groups and organized film criticism should be expanded under an efficient model. However, the current situation limits the interactions between film critics and box office and filmmakers.

However, I have faith in certain critics. Some of them are naturally talented and have build up a good knowledge base through watching large amounts of films. Another group are those Chinese film critics who grew up or are living abroad. They mostly have some academic background, but just in masters and PhDs. These people have the advantage of their fluency in foreign languages to gain even broader, diverse perspectives, access more information, and in turn are somewhat more mainstream.

Of course, I should also mention that there are some other film magazines in China, which mostly copy the commercial film/music magazines popular in the west. However, it can't be denied that these publications provide a venue, however limited, for some film criticism to be published, and make a contribution to the culture of cinephilia. However, these kind of publications lack professionalism, resulting in many readers or film critics to quickly stop reading them. These different venues of published film criticism are basically all interconnected, and have strong impacts on each other.

Film criticism, as a form of speech of passion, can be deduced into two forms based on their objectives.

The first is motivated by a dissatisfaction with the current state of Chinese cinema, the process of film censorship, the excessive dominance of blockbusters at cinemas, and the rapid commercialization of films in general which also rapidly strips them of their sacredness or artistic nature. These dissatisfaction's fuel the writings of some film critics, who hope to through analysis and critique of the blockbusters in China to burst the bubble, and to reduce the cultural demise brought on by mainstream films. They also hope to through film criticisms to join the film-making process of Chinese cinema, to have their own voices heard through creation to change the face of Chinese cinema. This kind of trajectory eventually produces not exactly film critics, but perhaps a group of film folks with critical minds. These people possibly will have great impacts in the shaping of future of Chinese cinema, because they can view their jobs, whatever they may be, from a more well-informed and well-rounded perspective, and therefore can plan thoughtfully how to, both artistically and commercially, fill in the blanks in Chinese cinema.

Another kind of film critics are closer to the traditional form of film criticism, and that goes back to the roots of watching, critiquing, and understanding a film. Their hope is pure and simple, and that is to see better films, and to through questioning and exploring the nature of film as a medium to help it develop for the better. These film critics are more actively involved in writing, translating, recommending and discussing films. Their main arena is the web. Their criticisms also have many readers and the number may be sometimes astonishing.

GW: Film critics outside of China, especially in North America, hold an important role in the film industry. A respected critic's opinion can substantially influence a film's trajectory and box office. How does that compare to the role of film critics in China?

WY: Chinese film critics have a certain amount of power too. Especially in the last few years as the web becomes more widespread and popular, which increased the influence of the voices of a certain number of popular critics. Of course, their influences are limited, because they are only popular on the web and not in print by independent medias, so of course their influence on the box office will not be so great. But we can see a trend: that more quality critics can have greater influences on Chinese cinema in the future.

I should mention that film critics in China, especially quality film critics, either lack a source of income, or gets funded directly by production and distribution companies. This results in some critics becoming biased in their opinions, and the respectability of their criticism in turn will decrease rapidly. There are a few rare critics who are struggling financially but remain independent from outside influences - their voices are continually being congregated and supported. As film clubs become more popular and widespread, I believe their voices will become even more important in the future.

GW: Let's talk about the issue of ethics in film criticism in China. Some independent filmmakers have told me that if they want journalists from publications to come see their films and write about them, the journalists in turn expect to receive a "red pocket" (monetary bonus). If not given, they usually won't come, or the reviews won't be as positive. Is this common?

WY: These people cannot be called film critics. Their actions will diminish and destroy their reputations and the value of their opinions. The ethics and independence of film criticism is the most important. No matter how many of those corrupted "critics" exist, they will never be taken seriously. This also brings us to another issue: that the real quality and ethical film critics are not thoroughly integrated into the world of cinema. There's also the problem of a lack of cultural appreciation and the unique role of political culture that makes this integration even more difficult. Right now we seem to still be in the process of collecting and building this infrastructure.

GW: What do you think of the future of Chinese criticism? Any hopes? Dreams?

WY: The relationship between Chinese cinema and Chinese film criticism is very complicated. Chinese cinema has been increasingly influenced by power and profits, almost becoming in fashion like economic and real estate investments, as a venue of funneling money and to help the government construct a kind of safe and dependable consumerism culture, a sort of harmless film industry. However, this impact on the nature of films, this restraint on the power of films and its artistic freedom, may be disastrous. So the state of Chinese films and film criticisms can be said to be in a state of divergence that is similar to the state of internal politics in China: the mainstream power will continue to rule over the masses, but individualism and freedom will continue to develop independently, quietly, on a separate track. The current film criticisms cannot have big or small impact on the production of Chinese cinema, they can only try their best to keep their voice aloud and heard, and not letting go of their sense of responsibility. The focus is still on the introduction, digestion, organization, and dissemination of world cinema culture. This is a stage of preparation.

In the meanwhile, quality film audiences are quietly congregating. One day a moment will come, when Chinese film critics will develop to a certain level of excellence, and this may be a surprising level, that they will began to have substantial impacts on Chinese cinema. This impact may be far greater than their counterparts in the culturally developed western countries. They may trigger a great new wave, and this I truly want to emphasize.

GW: Last question -- do you think film criticism is important?

WY: The importance of film criticism is easy to see. Cinema is becoming more complicated and continues to harbor all kinds of possibilities. The risks of the future development of films are still omnipresent and include the transgression of culture and the persistence of film culture. The consumption of film as a medium is already changing and that change will continue. Film as a form of media is directly linked to its fate. The value of film critics lies not only in their recommendations of films to the public, or the contribution of their viewpoints, or to through their critiques help the readers to better understand the films they watch. The importance of film criticism lies in its continuous interaction with films, in its persistence in maintaining a critical passion to observe the development of cinema as a while, to anticipate trends that are emerging, and to provide encouragement. Film criticism in certain regard should go even further, to the forefront of cinema, and not just stand on its sidelines. The relationship between film and reality makes film criticism not only about film itself, but also an active participant of the society we live in. The meaning of cinema lies outside of cinema. Chinese film critics are more like artistic sociologists: they must on one hand be responsible to the spirit and culture of film, and on the other hand be responsible to the environment they live in. Faced with the complexity presented by Chinese society, Chinese film critics still have a long road ahead to go.

A human being's thoughts, artistic appreciation, and spirits are of the utmost value. Filmmakers pursue them, and so do film critics.

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