Critical Art: Justin Chang Talks Cinema, Film Reviews, and Pursuing What You Love

Credit: 2018 Busan International Film Festival

Cinema exists in an ecosystem, where filmmakers, programmers, curators, investors and distributors all support the work of each other. Film journalism and criticism are also key parts of that ecosystem—and here at SINdie we do a little of both. We make sure that films get seen, and filmmakers get heard.
We sat down with current Los Angeles Times (and former Variety) film critic Justin Chang at the Busan International Film Festival, where he was part of the Kim Ji-seok Award jury. The award was created in 2017 in memory of the late BIFF co-founder and deputy director, and recognises emerging talents in Asian cinema.
Justin Chang shares more about his journey as a film critic, the process of writing reviews and his time at BIFF with fellow juror, Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo.
On his experience as a jury member for the Kim Ji-seok Award at BIFF
How has your time been at BIFF, and how does it compare to previous years?

Justin Chang: I attended BIFF in 2014 and 2015 and didn’t attend for two years, but now I am back, on a jury. I used to work for Variety as a critic and was here covering the festival. And then I moved to the Los Angeles Times, which doesn’t cover the festival. So it’s lovely to be back on a jury. I’ve always loved this festival.
About differences…It has been covered in the news that it’s a big year for the festival—a year of resurgence. There were a lot of challenges that the festival went through, political and financial issues. There is also of course, Mr Kim Jiseok, who died in 2017. That has changed the festival, and also why I am here on a jury in his honour. So it’s been a real honour to be here and to be on that jury in particular.
How have selections been for the award this year?

JC: There were a couple of films we liked very much but we didn’t get to recognise everything that we liked. It’s a good problem to have, when you are on a jury. There is a lot of talent out there. I don’t immerse myself in Asian cinema nearly enough. I see what goes to other festivals and I write about what little of it that comes to Los Angeles but I rarely get to immerse myself in what’s out there, who’s up and coming.
Have you been able to watch any other films outside your jury duties here?

JC: Erm…not nearly as many as I would like. I also kind of want to enjoy the city, walk around and… eat. (Laughs) This is one of [those] film festivals in great food cities. Also, meet friends and go to parties, there are lots to do. But I saw Halloween here which opens in the States and I have to review it so that was fun. And I saw the new Hong Sang-soo film, Grass. I saw this film called In My Room…it was at Cannes and Toronto. It’s nice to finally catch up.
With your background as a critic, do you think you approach your jury duties differently from say, your fellow juror Eric Khoo, who is a filmmaker?
JC: I will say, yes and no. I don’t know how different it is, I wonder. I’ve been on juries where it has just been critics. I’ve been on juries with people from different disciplines. And I actually like it, when you’re with other people who are not just critics. I mean I love critics, I spend a lot of time with film critics, but I have learnt so much from people who actually make films. I’ve never been a filmmaker in my life so it’s good to know more about what you’re talking about. (Chuckles) It’s not a matter of taste, I think everyone has taste and judgment and discernment, but they see things a little differently. They can give you a fresh perspective on why [a certain film] is good.
On his journey as a film critic
How was your path like as a film critic?

JC: I started writing reviews in high school and college for the student newspapers. If you really love something, you will try to do it, even if you’re not getting paid for it. I remember going to movies with high school friends and really wanting to make sense of what I had seen and writing about it. If I look back now, I will probably be really embarrassed by those first efforts.
There were a lot of critics that I loved to read and aspired to be as good as. It’s a difficult profession, it’s difficult to make a living out of it, full-time. I am extremely fortunate to have this job, doing what I love and pay the bills, I don’t take that for granted at all. It’s hard, but you find a way, whether you get to do it full-time, part-time or as a hobby.
That’s nice, loving something very much and getting to turn that into a full-time job. Do you remember your first review? How was getting that like?
How I started was…while I was at Variety as an intern, I always knew that I wanted to end up reviewing. Now this is very important thing—it is crucial to have friends, and I don’t mean “connections”... I mean friends who will encourage you. I had a very good friend who made me show some of my clips to the chief critic at Variety at that time and I was scared like, “Oh I am inexperienced, and...he wouldn’t care about me.” But my friend made me do it, get over my fear. It took awhile, but the critic liked my clips and gave me my first review, so it paid off! So sometimes you need friends who will push you to take risks. She was a reporter at Variety, but she’s in a different line of work now. We’re still very good friends today.
Support is really important too. As a film critic, there is no one harder on my work that myself. I’m sure it is true for you as well. It’s important to have friends that will say “that was a really good piece” or “you did a great job on that” and I’m like, “Wait, really?” (Chuckles) Because sometimes you’re just trying to…type it out and make something readable. Every writer needs a bit of affirmation, and every writer needs to be read at a certain point.
Very true. Hmm, how did your education fit into what you wanted to do? What sort of training do you think is important?
JC: I was at the University of Southern California, which has a really well-known film school and journalism school, so it was a great place to study those things. Film studies for me was more like a minor, I took a few critical studies classes. My major was print journalism. And I also minored in business. The journalism degree was really useful but sometimes I wish I had studied something else for my major because you can still be a journalist without going to school for it—it’s one of those things you absolutely learn on the job.
I read in another article that you frequently take notes when you watch films. What sort of notes do you take?
JC: It’s funny because I sometimes don’t ever look back at my notes. There’s just something about the act of writing them down that does something to your mind. When I look back at my notes, it’s usually for lines of dialogue or lyrics of a song, when I want to quote the movie and want to make sure I get it right. Visual details too, like “Oh that wallpaper looks interesting." Or just what is going on onscreen, or the plot. Looking back on my notes, they don’t really make much sense but it’s useful, just writing them down.
Do you watch a film more than once if you’re writing a review?
JC: Yes, a lot of times. And that is the luxury I have, even if it takes up more time. But when I was at Variety and at festivals, you have to write the review on the spot, the turnaround is just a few hours, so you don’t have time to see it again. But now when I am not reviewing anymore at festivals, so I just take notes, write down reactions, but I don’t review the films until they actually open in the theatres. And when I do, I watch it again, usually on a [computer] screen, but I still like seeing it in a theatre, for the best results.
How has the experience been like writing for different publications (eg. A trade publication like Variety, versus a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, versus radio with the National Public Radio)?
JC: I’m glad I had the training at Variety; I was there for 12 years. The form of a review there is more exacting, a little stricter…but it’s almost like a sonnet—within those restrictions you can find a lot of freedom and do some great writing. For me and many of my colleagues that was the challenge—to have your voice come through, even if you have to stick to a certain formula. And moving to the L.A. Times was great, I did feel ready, after the 12 years at Variety. I was excited, nervous. It’s been both easier and harder. Easier because you have all this freedom, you can write in a more personal or creative way. You don’t have to write the “definitive trade review”. You can rift. But perhaps that’s why it’s been harder too, because you don’t have those limitations to write within. I love it now, and I’m curious if I ever go back [to Variety], how I would write in that way again. It’s nice to use the first person [now] and have a more conversational relationships with my readers.
The radio stuff has also been great. That just kind of came up, evolved because people read my reviews at Variety, that’s how I got involved with Fresh Air. I’m honoured to work with them, they are a hugely respected programme in the States. Terry Gross [host and executive producer of Fresh Air] is one of the best interviewers out there in the world. And radio is a completely different discipline, I had no experience in radio at that time. You have to write a lot more simply, get to the point. You need to be very “essential”.
About the conversational stuff you do for the L.A. Times, I read the recent roundtable they published where you were talking with other critics about the best films of 2018, and you were raving about Burning, again.
JC: (Laughs) I think I gush about Burning in every conversation. It is probably still my favourite movie this year so far. We’ll see how the rest of 2018 goes but as of now nothing has overtaken it. And yes, Lee Chang-dong was here at BIFF!
Yes, I went for his talk. It was funny…the audience kept asking about all the loose ends in the film and at the end he sort of just exclaimed something to the effect of “things are supposed to be irresolvable and that is life!”
JC: Yes, that is life! That is kind of the point of the movie—you don’t really get to know. Lee Chang-dong is one of my favourite filmmakers…I don’t think he has made a bad movie ever. He hadn’t made a film in 8 years before Burning, so I’m really glad to see this reception his film has been getting. Especially the Academy Award nomination from Korea. A Korean film has never won, or even been nominated at the Academy Awards…and that’s just ridiculous, so I really hope that the film breaks that this year. It’s been a really good, and competitive year for foreign language films so it’s going to be hard, but I do think that Burning deserves it.
Justin Chang moderating a talk with American film producer Jason Blum at BIFF.
Credit: 2018 BIFF

On the craft and value of film criticism
What do you think distinguishes a great review, from a good review?
JC: (Laughs) I don’t think I’ve been asked this before. I would say that most reviews are just good reviews. The film doesn’t matter as much, but sometimes if you feel really passionately about something…it can result in the best work. But sometimes, things are just in the middle, and those are the hardest ones to write, but become the most rewarding because of the challenge. So…well it’s really hard to say. But there is a need for the writer… really going deep and connecting. It has to connect with the film and this connection can take many forms.
Actually, sometimes writing about a smaller or arthouse film can be a little easier to find your way into that, at least for me, compared to another studio blockbuster. There is a difference between showing somebody something that they have not heard of, versus something like Spiderman or Captain America. When you have to write about films like that, you feel hard-pressed to bring something new to the table, when they already have tons of coverage. There is something really liberating about reviewing films that not many have heard of, so you can bring some originality and expertise there, and show the reader something new. I love writing about Hollywood movies too, don’t get me wrong. I look back at the work I am prouder of, and there is a good mix of them on big and small movies.
At SINdie, many of our reviews (on Southeast Asian films) are one of the few on that film, and the reviews becomes quite defining in some sense. Have you been in that position, where you were sort of aware of how defining your review was going to be?
JC: I think it’s a good thing when film culture is shaped in large part by critics, much better than studio marketing departments. (Laughs) With the smaller, independent films, they don’t get all the exposure they can get. Perhaps when I was writing for Variety, I felt at times that you are “the voice”, or one of the few “voices” commenting on that film.
How do you see the role of a film critic changing now, as things have moved towards the web and that anyone can set up their own film blog, tweet their own reviews? How do you see your role changing?
JC: I still again feel very fortunate to be working at a very long-standing, well-recognised publication like the Times but I also acknowledge that these jobs are now exceedingly rare and film criticism has completely changed in many ways. And it’s been hard. Some really talented people I know and looked up to now do not have jobs and that really sucks. But at the same time, I agree that film criticism should not be restricted to newspapers and magazines, so you do see this great wealth of talent outside of that. Some of my favourite critics came up through their blogs and other means. Mixed feelings, you know? It does make film criticism less viable as a full-time profession, which is too bad. I think it’s true for arts criticism in general too but hopefully things will stabilise and people will still find ways to write and be read.
As for social media, yes, I tweet, to bump up my work and amplify the work of others too. I am very fortunate that because I work for the L.A. Times, I don’t have to do that so aggressively, but for others they constantly have to hustle.
Side question: What’s up with your twitter name? (“Justin Changsaw Massacre”, @JustinCChang)
Haha this is for Halloween. I don’t usually do it …but people, in October, change their names to something scary. If you follow my Twitter, you know I love puns.
On Southeast Asian cinema and film criticism
Do you remember the first Southeast Asian film you watched? Or if you don’t, what is your favourite?
JC: Let me try to see if I can remember… okay I don’t. Let’s just say I like Apitchatpong. Was it Tropical Malady? Syndromes and a Century was probably my favourite. I love that one. Definitely not my first, there were other ones.
Sometimes in Asian cinema there can be a very East Asian bent, at the expense of Southeast Asian, or West Asian films.
JC: Hmm yeah. China, Japan, Korea tend to dominate most of the time. I tend to write about those, whatever little of it that ends up in L.A. but my understanding is that you’re seeing this flourishing of filmmaking in Thailand, Cambodia, Southeast Asia. It’s important that BIFF is shining a light on these other films now, with the retrospective on Philippine cinema this year. It’s very exciting, isn’t it? That rise in filmmaking also brings with it the need for criticism. If there’s a renaissance in filmmaking there should also be a renaissance in cultural criticism around that.
What did you talk about with your fellow juror, Eric Khoo?
JC: I know he’s got his HBO series, Folklore. I talked a little about a film of his that I loved, Tatsumi. We talked about Crazy Rich Asians too! I’m really curious to know how it’s gone over in Asia. It was a sensation in the US, but I understand that it won’t have the same impact in Asia because they don’t have the same problem of representation as we do in the States. Eric and I both liked the movie a lot and found it really entertaining.
And when we look at the media coverage around Crazy Rich Asians, it’s quite interesting, because whether it was a good review or bad review of the film, whether it was saying that the film represented a group well, or didn’t, people were trying to grasp at what a film should be doing, and its role in our cultural lives.
JC: I did get into a few (pleasant) arguments about it. I think it is fair to say that the movie was a very positive thing in the States for representation, but maybe not so positive for Singapore. But at its heart, the movie is a fantasy, it is about rich people, beautiful clothes and houses…which are things that movies are very good at doing.

There is something in criticism, where people are paying much more attention to representation, diversity and perspective…and that’s all very good and important and necessary but I don’t think that that stuff can or should replace criticism as a whole. I think a lot of times films suffer when they are forced into ideological pigeonholes. For example, Crazy Rich Asians is more than just representation politics. I wrote in my review about how people are almost like requiring this movie to be all sorts of things to all people and that’s really unfair and it’s also a sign of why we need more movies so that no movie has to bear that burden alone. I do think it’s a bit much. It’s not a social realist film, nor should it be.
And you also wrote that in an ideal world, it wouldn’t have had to bear all these burdens of representation.

JC: Yes I did! And I usually don’t pay too much attention to the box office but for this movie I was really watching how it did. It was exciting, when it was the number one movie in the country for a few weeks, that really means something because Asian media and Asian people are very underexposed in the US. One of the interesting things about coming to Busan as an American is that even though I don’t feel like I fit in at all, you do feel a little less “visible”. Like oh this is how it feels like not to be a “minority” anymore. It’s an interesting feeling.
That’s great, I really wanted to hear your thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians. (Pause) Hmm our time is almost up, so I have one last question… What advice do you have for people who are getting into film criticism?
JC: I always say: Read as much as you can, watch as much as you can. You don’t have to read other critics, but I found it helpful, in terms of figuring out my own voice and why a certain voice appealed to me and another didn’t. It’s a great apprenticeship in a way. Keep exposing yourself to culture, news and politics and everything.
Sometimes people tell me that I have the best job in the world, which I agree! But it’s a lot of work—fun work, but it’s hard work too, to have to know so much. Some have an impression that I just watch movies and type something for half an hour, but this is as much of a job as many others are, and you have to approach it as such and pour time into it. You’ll get somewhere.

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