How To Critique A Film:
An Exposition by Dr. Victor Fan
Photo courtesy of Dr. Victor Fan
A PhD graduate from Yale University (Film Studies Programme and Comparative Literature Department), Dr. Victor Fan previously taught as Assistant Professor at the McGill University (Department of East Asian Studies). Possessing an MFA in Film and Television Productions (University of Southern California), his thesis film “The Well” (2000) was screened at major film festivals such as the São Paolo International Film Festival. A man of different trades, Dr. Fan has had extensive experience in performance arts, sound editing and film composition, as well as writing for the Film Festival Reporter and Film Festival Today. His first monograph, Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory was recently published in 2015. He currently holds the position of Senior Lecturer (Film Studies) at King’s College, London.
As the head mentor of the SGIFF Youth Jury & Critics Programme, we ask Dr. Fan what are the do’s and don’ts of critiquing the silver screen.
Describe in one sentence, what makes a good film critic? And what goes into penning a film critique?
Honesty - a film critic or scholar must be honest to themselves. Someone once told me that they were only able to write about a film to which they are indifferent, because such indifference would allow them to dissect the film as a pure object. Film critics should not treat a film as an object.
I like the word you use here: critique. A critique is a conversation or discussion of a film in hopes of engaging oneself with the experience of watching it critically. A criticism, however, is an evaluation of a film based on one’s personal taste or political opinion. The former is a two-way street that navigates between the subject and the object; the critic and the film. The latter should also be a two-way street that allows the critic to show that there is a problem with the film and the filmmakers should address it in their future works. We need both kinds of intervention. Scholars like myself tend to do the former, whereas critics tend to do the latter. However, to criticise a film well requires a good understanding of what criticism can and should do, so that a conversation––instead of a monologue––could be maintained.
Someone once told me that they were only able to write about a film to which they are indifferent, because such indifference would allow them to dissect the film as a pure object. Film critics should not treat a film as an object.
The role of a critic is a significant and influential one – it can affect how audiences perceive or appreciate the film watching experience, as far as to affect box office sales. How do you decide how harsh or lenient to be with a film?
I do not decide how harsh or lenient to be with a film. In fact, I do not think of my film criticism – academically or journalistically – as a matter of crime and punishment. A film critic should not evaluate a film as though it were an object out there. They should analyse and critique their embodied experience and their relationship with the film, and the socio-political implications of our responses to the film. We do so in hopes that our audience and filmmakers could reflect upon what they do. In this regard, my move from the United States to Canada, and then to the UK, had inspired me to think differently about this matter.
Last year at the British Film Institute, Tony Rayns, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I had a very delightful conversation. We managed to maintain a good rapport precisely because we engage ourselves in translating, transferring, and elaborating each other’s ideas into our respective lingos. We do not overstep each other’s boundaries or seek to overshadow each other’s authority.
Hou Hsiao-hsien with Dr. Victor Fan in Conversation with Tony Rayns, 14 September 2015. Photo courtesy of Li Cheng-yen.
Chinese Visual Festival Closing Gala at the BFI, with Ado’ Kaliting Pacidal and Tony Rayns. Photograph by Luke Robinson. Photo courtesy of Dr. Victor Fan.
How does a film critic view a film differently from a regular film-goer?
The simple answer is: No difference.
A film critic or scholar should never view a film differently from a ‘regular’ moviegoer. In fact, they are nothing more or less than a regular moviegoer, who so happens to have the training and vocabulary to articulate a response to a film critically and analytically. I always tell my first-year undergraduate students that learning film theory and criticism should not take away their pleasure of watching a film. They should still smile, laugh, cry, and be carried away by the film as an embodied experience. The difference is: They could, after enjoying the film, try to understand what this pleasure is about, how their bodies (and minds) respond to the film’s sensorial excitements, how the film conveys a certain social, cultural, or political affect to us so that we begin to feel a certain way towards a particular socio-political issue, and how the film fares financially and what these financial figures could tell us something about the market.
A film critic or scholar should never view a film differently from a ‘regular’ moviegoer.
What considerations or approaches are there in critiquing films of different genres and regions?
When a film is associated with a particular genre, or is known for breaking a certain generic expectation, it is interesting to examine how it does so. Meanwhile, discussing any film requires a scholar or critic’s understanding of the specific social, cultural, historical, and political conditions under which the film was made and received. This is not to say that a Japanese film, for example, is fundamentally different from a Hollywood film simply because a Japanese filmmaker or viewer thinks in a fundamentally different way from a Hollywood director or spectator. Rather, a certain set of socio-political and working conditions shape the way a film is being put together and how it tells a story.
‘Sex, Politics and Aesthetics in Shanghai Golden Age’, a lecture in the BFI A Century of Chinese Cinema season, June 2014. Photo courtesy of Dr. Victor Fan.
Japanese filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro. Widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential directors, Ozu’s reputed films such as Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953) pioneered his unique filmmaking style known as the “tatami shot”. Photo courtesy of No Film School.
For example, many Euro-American scholars consider Ozu Yasujiro the most Japanese filmmaker of all Japanese filmmakers, and they seem to assume that there is something called Japaneseness that can be defined neatly and categorically. Yet, Ozu started working in cosmopolitan Tokyo in the 1920s, and if you read his diaries, there was nothing fundamentally Japanese about him. His films are constructed out of a cultural sensibility that was the result of having navigated through and negotiated a set of contesting values: Hollywood cinema, Japanese cinema, Tokugawa painting, European modernist painting, Buddhism, Christianity, modern Tokyo life, technological excitement, spiritual tranquillity, admiration and misunderstanding of Japanese tradition, etc. These values do not cohere rationally. In fact, they are mutually contradictory. However, as a modern Tokyoite, he found himself living in a condition wherein these values must find a way to cohere and express themselves, and the result is a style of filmmaking that is very specific and truthful to the sensibility of a Tokyoite in the 1920s.
What is the current status of Asian Cinema? In your opinion, are we currently in a 'Golden Era'?
‘Asian cinema’ is a very broad category, and it is hard for anyone to gauge where it stands without committing any gross overgeneralisation. In terms of the film festival circuit, one can say that Asian cinema has been thriving. Asian films have been a staple in Rotterdam and Berlin for a number of years, and the Far East Film Festival at Udine has served as a hub of studio-produced or medium-to-big-budget independent films. Meanwhile, Busan, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, and Singapore have done a tremendous job to draw the audience and industry professionals’ attention from Europe to Asia, and to reclaim the Asian film industry and market’s agency to evaluate and appreciate its own cinema and industrial achievements.
When my colleagues and I travelled to Mainland China, we were always asked by young filmmakers and students there: How could Chinese cinema promote itself and succeed in the Anglo-American market? Or how can Chinese cinema be treated more seriously in Europe and North America? Dignity is not something that can or should be bestowed upon oneself by another person, country, or region. As Asian filmmakers, critics, and scholars, we must first treat ourselves seriously.
One major achievement that Asian film festivals like the SGIFF have managed to do is reclaim the agency to assess, evaluate, and appreciate Asian cinema and criticism by ourselves. We need to get over the illusion that our international status is given to us solely by Europeans and North Americans, as though Europe and North America are the international or the world, whereas Asians somehow stand outside this world. Not only that, we must also establish our agency to assess, evaluate, and appreciate Euro-American films, but such an agency is built upon our agency to judge our own works. The day when a European or American director pays attention to how a Singaporean critic evaluates their film, or how the jury of the SGIFF critiques their work would be the day when we can begin to talk about global equity.
What are some essential pointers of film writing that are vital in communicating a film to readers?
Film critics and scholars develop their own vocabulary, and in the case of academic scholars like myself, the terms we use are very specific and technical. This usually allows us to nuance the fine points in our analyses, but such nuancing may not be appreciated or grasped by a non-academic audience––or in fact, by our own students.The most important thing, in my opinion, is to write in a way that would be friendly and assessable to our audience, and introduce difficult concepts in a step-by-step manner. Our audience is intelligent, and we do not need to water down our concepts, let alone talk down to them.
However, we can find a way to gradually delve into the depth of our concept by using a more approachable language so that our audience could walk with us into the core of the problem. We are not separated from our own audience. We speak with the audience.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to write in a way that would be friendly and assessable to our audience, and introduce difficult concepts in a step-by-step manner. Our audience is intelligent, and we do not need to water down our concepts, let alone talk down to them.
With Professor Travis Kong (Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong), at an exhibition of the photographic works of his monograph,《男男正傳:香港年長男同志口述史》, 2014. Photo courtesy of Dr. Victor Fan.
Book launch of Cinema Approaching Reality at the BFI. Photo courtesy of Dr. Victor Fan.
To cater to different audiences, directors sometimes alter various elements in their releases. For example, a film’s ending for a Cannes Film Festival submission and its commercial release could be different. Can you share more about this consideration that filmmakers take on?
Alternative elements or endings are often produced for practical reasons. For example, many producers aim to have their films final-dubbed and released by the summer. However, in order to show the film in Cannes, producers usually order a temporary cut to be done by the end of April, and the audience’s reaction to that version would usually inform how the director or producer should fine tune their edit. Another example is that Miramax (and now the Weinstein Brothers) have been known for years to further edit the films they purchase drastically in order to cater the films to what they believe as the ‘American’ taste. We need to keep in mind that commercially, rarely do directors have the rights to the final cut. As a result, changes are often inevitable between a festival release and a commercial release.
This kind of practice can be traced all the way back to the silent era, when multiple endings or alternative intertitles would be used for different markets or audiences. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about this. What interests me is not the moral implications (if any) of such practice, but the very differences these alternative elements or endings produce, and how they tell us something about how we, as audiences from different geopolitical or cultural communities, perceive ourselves.
You have been trained in film production. Has the exposure provided you with different lenses when it comes to film critique?
I was trained in film production and worked in Los Angeles and New York primarily as a sound editor and mixer for a number of years. It helps my academic and critical works in two aspects.
First, I am able to address some of the technical issues that some scholars or critics might not be able to grasp immediately. For example, in recent years, there is a huge debate on the ontological implication of the digital image, i.e. if a digital image can be reconfigured and recomposed after the camera has captured it, can it still be considered as a ‘trace of reality’? The relationship between the cinematographic image and reality is of course determined not only by technical factors, but also by the process in which the spectator senses and perceives the image. However, most film scholars and critics who were not trained in film production might easily misunderstand how a digital camera works and what the computer actually does during the process of editing. My understanding of these aspects has allowed me to address these issues more thoroughly.
However, the most important thing is that my training in film production has allowed me to speak not as an outsider, but as insider, that is, I could approach a filmmaker in a film festival and let them know that I speak their language.
How did you first become interested in film and which aspect of film are you most interested in?
I grew up in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s. My parents brought me to see a lot of Hollywood films in the 1970s. Hence, you could imagine that my childhood memory of the cinema could be summarised by one name: Faye Dunaway. But once the 1980s arrived, my parents started to watch Hong Kong films almost exclusively. My mum was an elementary school teacher at the time, and she brought me to see every single New Wave movie and taught me what it meant by realism, and why it was so exciting to see the works of young directors and producers––especially women artists like Ann Hui and Rachel Zen––on screen.
Film still from A Ying 半邊人 (1983) by Allen Fong, starring Chi-Hung Chang, Pui Hui, So-ying Hui, and Kei Shu. Photo courtesy of Kugedu.
I remember watching A Ying (Banbian ren, Allen Fong, 1983) and was fascinated by how the camera moved me to tears by simply drawing me into the brute reality it registered. Of course, I was too young to intellectualise my equally brute responses to the film, but it was probably the first time I became aware of the power of the moving image. The sensation of watching A Ying was so pure, i.e. so untainted by any intellectual reasoning, that I have since then begun comparing every stimulating and inspiring sensation I have in the cinema to that very initiating moment.
What’s one major no-no in a film that never fails to irk you?
Dishonesty. No matter what film it is, when the filmmaker (be that director, producer, screenwriter, or even actor) is not honest to themselves, the film would never work.
On a personal note, what is the best film you have seen?
Tokyo Story and Spring in a Small Town: like a glass of water; it does not have a taste and you would not notice it when you drink it, yet it is exactly what you need.
Spring In A Small Town (1948) by Fei Mu, starring Wei Wei, Shi Yu and Li Wei. It is considered as one of the classics of Chinese cinema, being named the Greatest Chinese Film Ever Made by the Hong Kong Film Awards Association. Photo courtesy of Mubi.
Lastly, if you ever find yourself stranded on a remote island, name a film that you would bring it with you.
I would be glad that I have had the opportunity to get to know the cinema, and therefore treasure my memory of it as long as I live.