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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Who Reviews the Reviewer?

Statler and Waldorf

Reviewing movies seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? With the advent of the internet and now the rise of blogs galore, everyone — and I mean, everyone — can be a movie critic. But then again, even before all this technology enabled people to have a voice, every single of one of us had the potential to be film critics. I mean, when audiences were leaving screenings of James Whale’s Frankenstein in 1931, I’m sure folks were giving “reviews” to their friends and families that were equivalent to our own contemporary usage of such ever-descriptive critiques as “It sucked!” or “It rocked!” In that respect, reviewing movies is easy — you see a movie, you blurt out your reaction, and you’ve got a review…of sorts. But I think trying to do this job responsibly is actually a pretty hard task if you put any degree of thought into it.

I write film criticism mainly because I love films — and not just Hong Kong films, but film as a medium. I love to talk about movies and think about them and explore possible interpretations with other similarly-interested people. Marshall Leicester, one of my professors at UC Santa Cruz and the mind behind the very popular “Films of John Carpenter” course over there, likes to pose a question to his students: “What would it mean if it meant?” In a review, I might be called to mention a low budget, pacing issues, bad acting, or just flat-out sloppy filmmaking, but when taking a movie “as is,” we have to ask what it would mean if this “mistake” actually meant something. It’s a viewpoint that I really took to heart after writing a scathing review of a Takashi Miike film in which I (perhaps unfairly) chastise not only the filmmaker, but for the imagined type of audience that would presume to enjoy such a film. Is that really what I should be doing as a film critic? I really had to reconsider my methods and what “service” — if any — I was providing with my reviews.

Of course, there’s the consumer reports angle to all film reviews, especially if you’re thinking about Hong Kong and Asian cinema, which actually takes more of an effort for non-Chinese viewers to see in their respective countries. Unless you live near a Chinatown/Japantown/Koreatown, you probably can’t rent any Asian videos in an actual brick-and-mortar store (those are disappearing, too, but I digress). Although Netflix has certainly improved to the point where you can get a lot of Asian movies either on DVD or through Instant Play, Americans still probably have to wait for a US theatrical or DVD release for newer Asian movies movies, a delay which could take anywhere from months to even years in some cases. And so, you’re basically going to have to “blind buy” a movie basing your choice on recommendations, critical word-of-mouth, and/or personal tastes. And so, a site like really comes in handy. In that respect, one could say that my job entails warning you off of bad films and championing the good ones. But is it really as simple as that?

I’ve written a lot of reviews for this site. I don’t think they are all great pieces of writing — some I’m particularly proud of, while others not so much. I feel like the most formulaic movies get the most formulaic reviews. While working towards my master’s degree in English at the University of Hawai’i, I reviewed a lot of Korean comedies and horror films (by request, since somebody else called dibs on all the “good stuff”), and I think my review writing mirrored those mostly formulaic movies — opening paragraph, plot synopsis, good points, bad points, final evaluation. To some degree that style endures, but when it comes to the really interesting films, I try to break the mold and write a kind of essay on the work. Is there a way I can make you look at a film differently or perhaps ask a question you didn’t consider?

The thing is, good movies are sometimes the hardest to write reviews for, especially if you have nothing to say but “Wow, that was awesome!” Bad movies, on the other hand, are often the simplest reviews to pen. For the most part, I’ve found it’s easier to come up with three reasons why a movie is terrible than to list three reasons why a movie is a masterpiece.

Spoilers are also an issue. When writing about film in academia, an essay can and should be littered with spoilers galore so you can really talk about the movie in an in-depth manner. But in a review, you’re obligated to hold back bits of information information, and, for the most part, I try to conform with that expectation. But I have to admit it’s frustrating because some movies beg to be talked about from beginning to end and thus necessitate full disclosure on major plot points. Thankfully, Kozo has provided us with the  blogs to do just that.

I think the reviews I feel bad about are the ones in which I get unnecessarily personal, either with the filmmaker (what the hell was he/she thinking?) or the viewing audience (who the hell would want to watch THIS?) — as was the case with Imprint. I know I made fun of Murderer in a recent blog post, but I was really more baffled about how all the major players involved with the film gave the distinct impression that they thought they were making a masterpiece. Murderer is a film that defies the “thumbs up/thumbs down” logic of ranking films, as I think it is is probably one of the most astonishing contemporary Hong Kong pictures in recent memory. The thing about truly bad movies is that they tend to be middling affairs, irritating in their ineptness or boring in their execution, but Murderer is so spectacularly — and entertainingly — bad that it should be placed in an entirely different category of cinema altogether.

And there, I’ve totally lost my train of thought. Thanks, Aaron Kwok.

Anyway, whether it’s a glowing recommendation, a caustic slam, a critical essay, or an attempt at some serious food for thought, the reviewer’s job can be a challenge at times. I take the responsibility — but not myself — as seriously as I can. Well, not that seriously. We do try to have fun around here.

Still, I hope I’ve provided a helpful, if imperfect service during my eight or so years on the site. Lord, I do try.


6 Responses to “Who Reviews the Reviewer?”

  1. CeeFu Says:

    We sure do appreciate that service, sir! I almost always agree with you. Hence I am still intrigued enough to watch Murderer (but not to buy it). Somebody told me, though, there are still other ways to get your Asian film on. Not saying it’s me. Just something I heard. :)

    I don’t know if what I do is review (that’s too high brow for me), but I think critics get personal with the films all the time; they just aren’t that up front about it. I own the fact that I want to catch one of those Pang brothers in an alley for what was done to Storm Warriors. We get attached to movies in a real and visceral way, for good or bad, so that doesn’t bother me when you wear your heart on your sleeve.

  2. ColinJ Says:

    I know I just want anyones honest opinion on a film. Andx preferably in an articulate, well-considered way.

  3. Bomby Says:

    You guys generally do a great job on this site - I just think you all need to give Hou Hsiao-Hsien another chance.

    Having just gotten my bachelor’s in film studies and once again taking up reviewing as a part time hobby, I totally agree that reviewing bad movies is easier than reviewing great movies. When I talk about a great movie, I keep wanting to mention the editing and cinematography and other things that only academia and truly devoted cinephiles really pay close attention to.

  4. Marie Says:

    I always look to Lovehkfilm for insightful and culturally informed reviews of films. I’ve been doing a lot of research on Johnnie To lately (a lot!) and I keep coming back to your reviews of his films for the insights and information I just don’t find anywhere else. (It might be different if I read Chinese, but then again, maybe not.) I mean, who else but you guys would see the links between Needing You and A Moment of Romance? It sure wasn’t Tony Rayns or any of the other “big-name” reviewers of Asian films in English. Your understanding of Hong Kong history and culture, and Hong Kong film history and film culture is what makes your reviews a cut of above the rest. I only wish you guys would cut loose more often on your blogs and do some in-depth pieces on the films that you think matter.

  5. Webmaster Kozo Says:

    It’s great that Calvin can keep his blog updated because the rest of us simply can’t. But I do appreciate that people still find some value in The site itself is now way behind the current Internet curve so it’s nice that some people out there still like what it offers.

    Hopefully the site can get back on track a bit in 2011.

  6. AlHaru Says:

    Review writing is fun, if you can make money out of it it’s even better. I found good movies are easier to write about (and you know your readers are going to like them - the positive stuff); with bad movies, however, it’s always been difficult to detach personal grief and anger, sometimes sarcasm. I’ve been trashing a good number of movies in my attic writings, some of them have been seriously respected and loved. Reviewers and critics are always personal, vastly because a movie experience is also very much a personal experience.

    Tony Rayns’ commentary is more of a collection of information he gathered (as a film scholar), and presented that with his voice that’s sometimes boring to listen to. I doubt if people like Rayns have much insights and thoughts about Asian movies other than behind-the-scenes information they’d like to share. Not that I’m doubting their qualifications with regards to their professions, I just wonder if many of them have the same level of attachment to Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong’s, as to European and Japanese. Hong Kong cinema is a fragment so small that most of them must feel that writing or thinking too deeply about it would be a waste of time, because nobody wants to know more about it. Google up Kurosawa Akira, there you’ll find numerous reviews, in-depth or not, chanting his influence in world cinema. As for Wong Kar-Wai, people review him couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly.

    “I only wish you guys would cut loose more often on your blogs and do some in-depth pieces on the films that you think matter.” - Marie

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Sometimes I hope that Ross and gang can slim down on bad movies and stop poking too much fun out of them (they’re funny to read, regardless). I think most of us who frequent this site have a clear understanding of what Benny Chan has become, and Hong Kong cinema is no longer the same independent service as before.

    It might also help if the site offers the readers to post opinions. Looks like we’ve got some pretty interesting brains here around.

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