My initial involvement with China's film industry was in 2001 when I started a serious endeavor to review new releases. Since then my relationship with the booming business has been tangential at the most accurate, offering me a ringside seat that combines the perspectives of the appreciative cheerleader and the cool-headed observer.
I never intended to be a film critic and I still don't see myself as a professional one - in the sense that I do not make a living out of it. Before my career in film criticism took off - it's more like a cottage industry - I was more fascinated by the theater, having produced and directed The Sound of Music for the Beijing stage.
Those who knew that history were not surprised when I wrote and directed The Ring Road two years ago, which has had two runs and toured 35 cities so far; and adapted and directed Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. When film production companies approached me about adapting them for the screen, I was surprised to find my plays, including those written but not yet produced, utterly unsuitable for cinematic treatment.
Even though I never wanted to make film criticism my full-time job, I was so prolific in the first decade of writing on the subject that I probably surpassed everyone else in China in quantitative terms. It has added up to about 14 published books and perhaps five more if I'm willing to compile them into books. And I did it in my spare time - evenings and weekends. But A Practical Guide to Chinese Cinema 2002-2012 was part of my China Daily job.
Looking back, I can hardly believe I had so much to say about film in general and Chinese film in particular. The irony is, I was pessimistic about its prospect in the first six or seven years. I equated the emergence of the so-called "big-budget movie", or tentpole in Hollywood parlance, with the white-elephant projects prevalent in Chinese society.
What gave me hope in the industry was the appearance of movies like Lost in Thailand, which had modest ambitions but took the art of storytelling very seriously. They were created to satisfy public need for entertainment, but they did not give themselves short shrift in terms of imagination or work ethics.
A corollary of film criticism is consulting. I'm sometimes asked to comment on certain projects, which can be an outline, a script or a rough cut of a film, for a private audience, be it the executive producer or the director. There I become privy to the office politics played out against a grander cultural background and I began to understand Ang Lee's observation that an American film director is like the president of a country while the Chinese counterpart is the emperor.
It is hypocritical to say I have not been tempted by showbiz. Most good film critics in China do not last long. They end up inside the business, becoming screen writers, consultants or even directors. Of course, once you're an insider, you'll automatically give up your right to criticize because your target is now your peers. Roger Ebert, my idol as a film critic, was forced to choose when he wrote his first film. He chose criticism. Thankfully, I have not been subject to this form of choice.
Last year, I made a 60-minute documentary for a client of China Daily. I see that as a seamless merger between my day job and my hobby. Somehow I don't see job divisions the traditional way. One is not either a journalist or a filmmaker. In my eyes, there is critical writing and there is creative writing, and directing is just a natural extension of the latter. Sometimes one ends where the other starts. One never knows which area suits one better and it's good to explore. Good writing and good films are both born out of intellectual curiosity.
The writer Raymond Zhou is editor-at-large of China Daily.