Fake vs Frank opinion

Updated: 2014-03-31 15:16

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily USA)

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When showbiz celebrities junk media-speak for a spontaneous burst of plain talk, controversies ensue. But it is better they hold personal beliefs that offend than fake a semblance of propriety that pleases.

Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang is known for his uncompromising remarks as well as for his top-grossing movies. Whenever he appears at the annual Shanghai International Film Festival, some newspapers reserve headline space for him, knowing full well that he will "fire at some person or object" and create shock waves throughout the industry or even beyond it.

In 2010, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein excused himself after making a brief statement at one of the festival's popular forums, saying he had to catch a flight, and Feng followed up by saying Weinstein was "an outright fraudster".

Fake vs Frank opinion

The press later checked Weinstein's itinerary and found him shopping in Shanghai later that day rather than rushing to the airport. Of course, Feng was not aware of that; he was referring to Weinstein's handling of Chinese films in the North American market. The co-founder of Miramax Films and co-chairman of The Weinstein Company countered in a subsequent statement that Feng's film, The Banquet, which he distributed in the United States, was among the most profitable of the Chinese director's movies in that market.

In Hollywood, Weinstein is considered to be brash, but compared with Feng he is almost a diplomat. I've heard him in interviews refusing to bad-mouth his Hollywood peers, I mean those who had rubbed him the wrong way or those whose guts he hated. It seems an industry practice that one should not do this kind of thing openly.

So, what is your assessment of Feng and his behavior? Is he a loose cannon whose childish recklessness will eventually undo his career, or is he a rare exception in a business where a facade of hypocrisy is to be meticulously maintained even though backstabbing is generally the norm? By attacking Weinstein at such a high-profile event, said some pundits, Feng had cut out the possibility of his movies ever finding their way into wide distribution across the Pacific.

Showbiz is not an industry whose practitioners can freely express themselves, at least not those in the big league. They have public personas from which they derive their livelihood. The public has a certain expectation of them, which is usually determined during the molding phase of a career. Feng started out as witty but non-confrontational, a positioning shaped by his early comedies. But as revealed in his two memoirs, he kept his head low and his works inoffensive so that they would have an easier time with both censors and audiences.

Fake vs Frank opinion

As his status as the top film comedian of our age solidified, he became more and more vocal. In 2004, he led a relief charity drive for the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami. In recent years, he has repeatedly assailed the country's film censorship system. After the release of his latest comedy, Personal Tailor, he threw down the gauntlet to the nation's film critics, whom he charged with deliberately misguiding the public.

All these are shortcuts to upsetting different strata of society. Even the charity effort effectively set him against the glitterati he managed to organize because each of them deemed it a snub when they did not get the publicity they sought. I won't go into details about the ruckus with the critics because it involved me as well.

Most members of the public tend to view such acts in light of the specific viewpoints being proffered. If they agreed with Feng in his scuffle with the critics, they would say he's a man of integrity and courage, daring to stand up to bullies whom thought they controlled public opinion; if not, the argument would be that he is not gracious towards criticism, which is a blemish for a person of his prominence.

However, if we take a step back and scrutinize celebrity behavior, we must determine whether our society benefits from the beau monde that is decorum-abiding and politically correct or one that dares to speak its mind even when it goes against the tide. In other words, are they unelected flag carriers of our tastes and preferences, or are they individuals entitled to their own opinions, some of which have nothing to do with their profession?

Coincidentally, Feng was once on the receiving end of a similar volley from a colleague. Actor Sun Haiying time and again lambasted his work for being crass. Sun, who rose to fame after starring in a television drama series about veteran revolutionaries titled Days of Burning Fervor, obviously represented the old establishment in his aesthetics and he attacked low-brow entertainment, official corruption and homosexuality with equal gusto.

Feng shot back by saying Sun had had his brain damaged by the burning fervor. A further examination would reveal that Feng was pitted against Sun on only the aesthetic point. In his memoir, he has detailed his positive feelings about Sun's role as a soldier, which reminded him of his own military service.

The back and forth between them was conducted through the traditional press. Nowadays one can do this without the filtering of an intermediary by going directly to social media. Either way, it may not be an optimal approach to a rational debate. But it has its own way of bringing issues of gravitas to the surface of simmering sentiments. There's nothing like the exchange of two firebrands, each with tens of millions of followers on a microblog, to spark an intense interest in matters of wider ramification.

Had Feng kept quiet, only a few industry insiders would have been informed of the ways Chinese movies are distributed overseas. Had Sun suppressed his aversion to gays, he might have not learned that many of his peers in the entertainment business are among the targets of his moral indignation. And we the public might not have detected a rift in generational perception of the standards for entertainment products.

People in showbiz are caught in a quandary. It is generally deemed inappropriate to make public comments on the works of their peers. And other topics could be beyond the reach of their professional expertise. Sure, some stars champion causes close to their hearts or endorse propositions of a charitable nature. But most steer clear of outright controversies.

People like Feng Xiaogang have their own logic. They want to carve out more space for their views after they have attained a certain level of professional achievement and social influence. Rather than placing themselves in a straitjacket of public anticipation, they turn their clout into more leeway for what they say and what they do.

Feng is a paragon of this art. In his memoirs, he goes to great lengths to offer his take on many of the hottest filmmakers of our era, which is taboo unless it is padded with ingratiating eulogies. He manages to get his points across in a language that seems deferential yet does not drown out the truth. It is a linguistic skill he also employs in his movies, which makes it harder for people from other cultures to fully appreciate them.

Even though I do not see eye to eye with Sun Haiying on many of the points he raised, I don't think he should be shamed into silence simply because his perspective would be seen by some as a sign of bigotry. His candor is helpful to the future reconciliation of what are now regarded as moral disparities, just as positive role models can help dispel the clouds of stigma.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily USA 03/31/2014 page10)