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15 May 2017, Monday, 03:43 (Hong Kong)

Raymond Zhou: "Chekhov is a God" - interview with one of the famous movie review writer in China

They say, a talented person is talented in everything. I did not inquire about whether he is also gifted in horticulture, but the talent of incisive, acute and yet truthful and business-like writing is something no one can take away from him. I am talking about Raymond Zhou, a pioneer in composing movie reviews for China in a style that was not typical to the Middle Kingdom back in the days which brought him the popularity as a movie review writer. Nowadays Mr. Zhou is an X-Ray columnist with China Daily (the column is titled under his name), a playwright (and his plays are staged in China and abroad), an author of twenty books and just a very knowledgeable man. Initially, the idea of having an interview with him dawned on me once an acquaintance of mine handed me his contact. Since I am contributing to a Russian online media ‘South Insight”, which covers China-related topics, I thought for our Russian readers a conversation with a personage like Raymond Zhou would be beneficial. As well as for the Russian readers, I am publishing the interview on China Daily blogs platform for those of you are interested in movies and not only.

Raymond Zhou was born in Zhejiang province in 1962, graduated from Hangzhou University (now Zhejiang University), got his master’s degree in Guangzhou and obtained MBA in Berkeley University in the USA in 1992. As clear as it is, he is a man with a diverse cultural background. He lived in the USA accumulatively sixteen years, being sandwiched between two countries – the USA and China, as his family was living in the USA at that time. In 2007 he returned to China for good. In his interview Mr. Zhou mentioned that he had always had a craving for writing, as his first degree was in English. While in the USA, he started writing for technological and internet publications in Silicon Valley, and was an editor-in-chief for one of them. “For me, it was like I used the Chinese writing to fit to my English writing, and vice versa. I think that writing skills can be applied to both languages”, commented Mr. Zhou. In the end of 2001 the Internet bubble burst and Mr. Zhou was paid only half a day, so he had some extra time to go to the movies. At that time there were not so many people in China going online, but there were already websites in Chinese. More than that, there was a branch of Sina in Silicon Valley, which was doing much better than the Chinese counterpart. “So I browsed through the Chinese websites and noticed that the quality of writing film reviews was not that good. I knew I could do better. Since I watched a lot of movies I started writing about American new movies and I wrote in a style that was very accepted in America, the mainstream writing style. That was the style the Chinese were not familiar with, and for the Chinese readers it was totally new. In less than three months, I was already well-known. It happened so fast. At that time, in China there were only two types of movie reviews – one is academic style, very limited; and one is prosaic. Prosaic ones are for the most part personal essays, the writers use movies as a launch pad. And it is not really about the movies, it is about the writers themselves. What I wrote was about the movies”, added Mr. Zhou. He expressed this “why” – why the movie he thought was good or bad, his own opinion that made his reviews so valuable, so highly praised in his Motherland. In 1999 he started the X-Ray column on China Daily, while still living in the USA.

South China Insight: Talking about the movies, which one is your favorite so far?

There are so many of them, as I did spend time systematically studying the film history. I’m probably the one in China who watched the most movies. I watched around 7,000 of them in total. In the mainland China people didn’t have the chance to watch as many movies as I did due to the Cultural Revolution in the 70s when people didn’t have access to the foreign film industry. My record is eight movies a day, when I was screening for film festival in Shanghai and Beijing. We watched like a hundred movies a week.

 Probably there are some genres of movies that you like most?

I like drama. Actually, I try not to have prejudice against any genres. But my personal favorite is drama.

However, when I asked Mr. Zhou if he likes any Chinese TV series he said they were too long for him. Even the popularity of a once on everyone’s lips TV series Empress avoided him. Raymond Zhou added that the popularity of the named series rested on a perfect combination of a stunning Fan Binbin performance, imperial storyline and the strict censorship all added to the popularity.

Nowadays the Chinese industry is the largest in the world (here I was corrected by Mr. Zhou – still the second largest). What tendency is it following now?

I think the Chinese film industry is moving in the direction of commercialization. More and more movies are designed to entertain rather than provoke. At the beginning China film industry was influenced by the Soviet film industry, art and entertainment, and was served only the political purpose. It was very much in accordance with the China's ancient theory that pure entertainment should not exist. But if you go to the movies in China now, it is obvious that people want to laugh and entertain themselves because nowadays movies first and foremost are commercial products. The other side of the coin is that the space left for art film is becoming smaller and smaller. I think that commercial film and art should coexist.

Which themes for movies are most popular in China?

The most popular theme is nostalgia. It is basically a story about going back in time a decade or two decades ago, how they found their love, then went separate ways and now have the reunion. It is popular with people because the age group of movie goers are young people. They want something fluffy and entertaining.

And what about other topics - emperors, palaces, wars, martial arts?

That is another thing. The palace dramas you should not see as a serious history as they also exist to entertain. It is the fantasy, which is also popular among young people.

Russian film industry is trying to penetrate into the Chinese film market. At the latest Beijing Film Festival, several Russian movies were presented. Have you watched any of the Russian movies? What is your opinion?

Actually, I have watched quite a few Russian films. I still remember the Russian movie "Mayor" on the Shanghai Film Festival two years ago. A film about a police officer who ran down a pedestrian on the way to the hospital and had to confess but was held back by his peers. It was so well-made and I thought it had resonance in China because there are a lot of bad things with Chinese police too but the boldness, the courage that Russian movie portrayed it was really eye-opening. I gave it the highest score. Of course, I watched the Russian movies before. "Russian Arc" [by Alexander Sokurov] stroke me. 300 years of Russian history in one shot, pure genius. Though I did not like his "Faust”.

I think the most popular Russian movie in China is “Stalingrad”.

 When it was released in China, I was invited to the premier. That one was not well-received because people were expecting too much, it was still an old school, but technique was good. For me at least, it is not as good as the other movies I’ve seen at the festival. I saw the Russian remake of "12 angry men", China remade it this year. The Russian version was very good. It was the classic. I am very interested in the cultural exchange and it is fascinating to see the combination of both cultures in one movie. I have been to Moscow once which was my only trip to Russia and I could see how close Russia is to the rest of western culture. It is fascinating to see how many great writers and people emerged from that soil. It is good to take best of both cultures. For example, Chekhov is a God. Chekhov is very difficult to present in China, because it is all in the subtlety, nuances. I watched different versions of Chekhov. The British version was very good. American version is different. I think I think there is a connection of what is portrayed by Chekhov "Cherry Orchard”) and Chinese “A Dream of Red Mansions”. There is no story line; it is all in little details. The greatest artists are not satisfied with just telling a story, they are aiming for something higher. Once the Chinese attempted to make a version of "Seagull". It was terrible, it was all wrong. British BBC version was much better. The actors were not overreacting, and even though they are speaking English, you still can feel they are closer to the Russian version than the one the Chinese made. I feel that those old masters from Russia are teaching us a lesson that a writer and an artist in China we should do the same, we should do whatever we need, we should express our feelings.

You have penned twenty books. What are your future plans? What book are you working on now?

Well, since I’ve done so many books, I am kind of suspending my book publishing right now. I try to do more plays. I have already done two plays, I wrote and directed one play called “Ring Road”, based on Beijing ring road structure and that play was originally premiered in Los Angeles in 2010, because I wrote it in English, and one in Chinese was presented in China. That play already toured 35 cities in China, and has been very generously received. This year I did another play, based on Oscar Wilde’s play “Importance of being Earnest”. I just changed the set to contemporary China. I also put the stories from Wilde’s other plays into it and adapted it to China. I had a run of ten performance in June and it was very well received in Beijing. I’m thinking of doing more plays. And since I’m into film, I am also considering maybe I should also do some films. Now for films review my output is decreasing, I used to write one hundred reviews a year. And now there are 15 or something. Either the movie excited me that I decided to write a review or it is some short reviews I do on my weibo. Though I’m kind of old school so I still do the longer reviews. At least 1000 words.

You are a very ambitious man, do you u have a life motto?

I don’t have one. I consider myself an eclectic. Do not go to the extremes. I think that by personality or by choice I am like that. I like to take good things, absorb good things, from all sources, both Chinese and western. When there is a debate like which film is better –western or Chinese, which artist is better, I always feel like we should not go to the extremes. Should take the middle road, as there is always something good to offer, from every culture. Why not learn from it. If you want me to pick just one writer I think is the greatest, I probably pick Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the others. I think every writer, every country is so unique. I think the uniqueness is good. The Hollywood model is copied worldwide, so every country produce Hollywood-style movies. They have their value. We should learn something good from them, but make it our own. We can’t make purely Hollywood movies, the distinct personality should be preserved.

Writing is an art. Where do you get your inspiration from?

From real life. I think ultimately, every writer gets the inspiration from real life. Not from other writings because that way it turns derivative. You observe life, and every age is a great age. Right now the changes in China are happening on historical scale, I think a lot of people are mislead by the idea that one has to write something that is great or epic. If you write about the little things in mind that would still be great. Chekhov wrote about things that he knew, that happened in his little world. There were not grand, but it became great literature. You should write about things you know. If you pretend, you understand something that you do not you will show your weakness. You know what exists around you is already so fascinating. It is the microcosm of the society at large. And if someone is observant, they can always capture the complexity of a human nature and the world.

Anastasia Sukhoretskaya, Beijng

«South China Insight», 18.10.2015

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