Mao Was A Film Critic

By Xin Zhou (China)

Mao was a film critic in China, among many other positions he occupied. His review of The Life of Wu Xun (1951) in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, instigated a year-long public campaign that criticized the bourgeois and the anti-historical materialism ideology which he sees as representative in the film. Totality, the intention to blur the distinction between the aesthetic and the political, is the hindrance blocking the road to renewal in contemporary China that continues to speculate a further disintegration of the financial, the administrative, the military, the judiciary, and the commercial.

Now, as Mao has failed so miserably in attempting to build socialism in China, whose current waning legitimacy in the face of massive and systematic corruption can only be bolstered by ideological contortionism, the story of the total critic is not going to happen again soon, if ever. For the past couple of years, insurmountable interest from venture capital in commercial cinema in China has almost surpassed interest in real estate. The potential for prosperity in the production of film, via overseas expansion, money laundering, and box office figures manipulation, is in the mind of every manager of the burgeoning trust funds, and investment banks. Political economy is and has to be part of the discourse of cinema.

Meanwhile, the work of film criticism has inevitably downsized to be functional, in the sense that it only facilitates the visibility of film, but rarely the critique. While the industry expands its social, cultural and financial relevance, the corrosive disease of corruption, like the uncontainable viral flu, has also entered the body of film writers, making the ethical life of a film critic ever harder to archive. Corruption is found in the materiality of “Red Envelopes (aka Hongbao)”, which used to describe a monetary gift that is given during special occasions such as weddings, and new years, that has become the self-emitting object dispersed in the pockets of writers who are open to sharing the festivity of a new film’s birth.

As for me, living outside of the country for three years has been a revelation— knowing how Chinese cinema circulates outside of its domestic reception, as well as the images of the country in the Western context. I look forward to seeing how digital circulation will bring my writing to the floating atlas.