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."
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 Cinephilia.net, 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.