In 1990, Han Han, then only 17, appeared on a TV programme hosted by state-run channel CCTV. During the broadcast, the high school dropout – who had just shot to fame with his first book Triple Door – sat through an hour of criticism from a panel of experts. When Han squirmed, the host told him to get used to it. “You are a public figure now, like the American President,” he said. “People will have all kinds of demands of you.”
Years later Han Han’s directorial debut is also a matter of public scrutiny. As WiC reported in issue 245, the writer released his first film The Continent in late July. The road trip film – it features Feng Shaofeng and starlet Chen Qiaoen – tells the tale of three young men and their voyage of self-discovery. So far the audience response has been positive. It took Rmb600 million ($97.7 million) at the box office in the three weeks after its release, topping Han’s literary rival Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times 3. Douban, a popular movie rating resource, also rated The Continent with 7.4 stars out of 10, better than Tiny Times 3’s 4.3 stars.
Outside China, the critical reception has been mixed. “Han has produced a film devoid of meaning but filled to the brim with pretensions of artistic greatness,” was Hollywood Reporter’s verdict. But Han, who also wrote the screenplay, says he is not too bothered by the detractors. “I’ve read some criticisms of The Continent. You can say the film is flawed or imperfect, but you can’t argue that it is a lousy film. I believe that the film meets the standards for quality and aesthetics. Perhaps this type of film (travelogue) is more unique in the domestic film industry so it is hard to evaluate. At any rate, I know my own inadequacies. I believe audiences will see my improvement in the next film,” he told reporters.
The harshest assessment came from Xiao Ying, an influential cultural critic and Tsinghua University professor. Xiao thought Han’s directorial debut was so terrible that he wrote a scathing piece in the China Youth Daily claiming that it was “rife with plagiarisms of other films” including the Hollywood classics Thelma and Louise and Easy Rider, as well as the Chinese romance Love is Not Blind.
The article went on to attack Han himself, citing the writer as a fraud and “the biggest scandal of the literary circle”.
“I believe that to clarify the history of how Han came to fame will not only be essential in returning the truth to history… but will also get rid of the poisonous flow of anti-intellectualism that has poisoned Chinese culture,” Xiao thundered.
Xiao’s controversial comments triggered fury online. Many netizens rushed to defend Han, saying that the accusations were baseless. In a commentary, the Beijing Times questioned Xiao’s intent: “Comments about Han should be better conducted, in an academic way. The article is no longer a critique, it has become a personal attack on Han.”
A netizen echoed these comments on Sina Weibo: “These kind of defamatory remarks read like a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution. And to come from an art professor? What a shame for the art world!”
Columnist Zhao Chu questioned why the state media (China Youth Daily is a state-owned newspaper) would use such abusive language in a personal attack on the author, while others argued that Xiao was an attention seeker trying to garner publicity. “He probably envies Han’s success and wants to generate some buzz for himself,” one netizen wrote.
Not long after Xiao’s commentary was published, China Youth Daily released a follow-up article saying that the allegations were his own personal opinion, and they might even be libellous. It also agreed that Xiao’s hectoring tone was “in the style of the Cultural Revolution”.
Of course, Han has made a few enemies over the course of his career, sometimes being accused of arrogance. A Sina Weibo poll suggested that over 40% of respondents thought the article wasn’t too critical. “Han should have been pulled down from his shrine long ago,” one wrote, a comment that highlights how the novelist and director has become a polarising figure.
Han has avoided responding directly to Xiao’s article, although the publicity has helped to spark interest in The Continent. Thanks to the controversy, the film might even surpass Rmb1 billion in ticket sales. “Xiao Ying has just given Han Han and his team the biggest boost ever,” website Hexun wrote.
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