China’s most famous blogging off-road racer Han Han had his debut film open last month to mixed reviews. The general review holds that his road trip piece, The Continent, has some funny lines and contrived artistry but that the characters and plot aren’t well-developed. It’s “all artistic posturing, but no substance,” Hollywood Reporter critic Clarence Tsui wrote.
It still earned a reasonable 7.4 rating on Douban, with 62 percent rating it 4 or 5 stars, and it did well at the box office, winning its opening weekend (but making 26 million yuan less than rival Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times did the weekend before).
Still, Han Han apparently wasn’t satisfied to ignore the critics. On August 2, he said, “The Continent is a very sincere film. Maybe you won’t like it, maybe it’s controversial, but I don’t want it to be said that it’s a rotten film.”
A little bit thin-skinned for such a caustic guy?
The word “rotten” here is “烂”, which is defined as “rotten”, “soft”, “mushy”, “messy”, and “chaotic”. (“但是不希望被说是烂片”) Some critics in China have been saying quite harsh things about his film, including ordinary bloggers on the same kind of platforms Han Han uses.
Northeast Online quotes some netizens as saying, “If Tiny Times is a Powerpoint, The Continent is Word.”
I particularly like Shendu Keji’s (慎独克己) take on Douban:
Tiny Times is like a powerpoint presentation accompanied by music. I think The Continent is also a PPT–a PPT accompanied by music with famous aphorisms on every page.
Tiny Times is a surrealistic mental masturbation film. It is rational that the plot is unreasonable. The Continent, I think is a four-section essay put together with a musical poetry recitation.
This kind of criticism is all par for the course for Han Han. Throughout his blogging and novel-writing career he has been attacked by some authors who find him too crass or uncultured. He usually fires back, as with his feud with Han-Bai, during which time he wrote “The ‘Literary Circle’ is Bullshit, Don’t Act Pretentious.”
And he can be brutal writing about other people’s films, as he was with Confucius:
As for what Chow Yun-fat meant when he said, ‘If you don’t cry after watching Confucius, you aren’t human,’ I believe it’s a misunderstanding. It must have been at an internal meeting to watch the film that the filmmakers themselves cried.
So it’s not exactly surprising that he would respond to criticism of his own film, but he really ought to brush the dirt of his shoulders. If he doesn’t want people to think his relationship with Guo Jingming is getting any more marred by jealousy.
Guo Jingming writes books about fashion and youth drama, books that Han Han has slammed as “designed for small kids” and “bitchy”, but he earns more money from his books and films than does Han Han. Another time, Han Han said, “I might be unfortunate to step on shit, but they [Guo Jingming’s fans] place their heads in it.” He’s not exactly wrong. Most Chinese agree with him, and Tiny Times 3 averages a 4.4 rating on Douban.
But Han Han’s credentials as a rebellious artist could be challenged, too. The way he talks about his film–“Maybe you won’t like it, maybe you think it’s controversial…”–show the image of someone desperate to contrive a controversial image.
I watched his film and I read his book, 1988: I Want to Talk with the World, that shared the same backbone as the film, and I can tell you the movie isn’t being criticized because it’s “controversial”. It’s a standard road trip tale where one pragmatic materialist is paired with a long-haired free-spirit. It features a prostitute with a heart of gold, just like many of his novels do. As a fan of his blogging and the novel, I was excited for the film, but I came away thinking, like the critics, that, while there were many funny moments, the plot and characters weren’t well-developed. I came away feeling that he was trying for something that he didn’t hit–that he tried using too much symbolism to do the job of actions.
The Hollywood Reporter review also points out that while Jia Zhangke gets a cameo in The Continent, Jia’s own film, A Touch of Sin, isn’t being shown in theatres.
Isn’t it ironic that Han’s pale copy of that is raking eight-digit box-office returns in China while the original remains unreleased, caught in censorship limbo?
In a way, The Continent is not substantial enough to be an homage to Jia and his fiery attempt to relay China’s problems; on the other hand, it’s too earnest and po-faced to be pastiche or parody. A Shanghai-born enfant terrible born into a comfortable lifestyle with scant experience of living outside the bright lights of the big city – his hobby is in driving race cars — Han has delivered a glossy, sugar-coated adaptation of the gritty realism Jia and his fellow sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers have shaped and perfected.
Han Han isn’t controversial. He’s a mass market satirist telling audiences what they are thinking about the corruption of culture in modernizing China in only the broadest terms. He ought to be commended for it. He does a good job with it. But the schtick is wearing thin when it comes out of his own mouth.
But cheer up, Han Han. It’s your first film. You yourself said in the Northwestern Online interview, “I believe you will see in my next film the evolution to version 2.0, or even a version 3.0 Han Han film.”
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.