“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Li Lai’s goal as a critic and an editor is codified in her outlet’s mission statement: “to diversify popular media, both on-screen and off-screen.”
Lai founded Mediaversity Reviews with the intention of examining movies and TV – new releases and canonized classics alike – primarily through the lens of diversity and inclusion. For each item it reviews, Mediaversity provides a grade for representations of race, gender, LGBTQIA+, and other identities where applicable. But Lai’s mission also translates beyond the screen and onto the page.
“I’m probably most proud that we’re supporting underrepresented voices – that was always the genesis of Mediaversity in the first place, and that’s never going to go away,” Lai said in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes.
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for policy change, and greater diversity in editorial spaces and newsrooms, Mediaversity’s mission is all the more resonant. “The goal is just to keep diverting the resources back to people of color and writers of color,” Lai said.
What is the movie or TV show that you’ve watched more than any other?
I guess the only movie I can think of that I’ve really watched over and over and over again is Velvet Goldmine from 1998. … It’s sort of a cult queer movie. It just has so many layers to it that every time I watched it and re-watched it, I would just find something new.
What do you think makes a good movie?
What makes something interesting to me is freshness. I always like having just a slightly new angle. And there are so many movies out there that are meant to just purely entertain and they’re fun. But if I’m saying what a “good movie” is, then I think it needs to say something new – whether it’s visually or the moment in time, through the story. It could be experimental. I just feel like that’s what every movie or every piece of art really should be trying to do, is just to say something new.
Who are some people that everyone should follow on Twitter?
I love Candice Frederick because she’s clearly so informed on Black issues… You can tell that she is sharing articles that she’s read and that she thinks have something interesting to say. She’s not glossing over anything.
Then one person I really I think is always on the forefront of Asian American issues is Nancy Wang Yuen. She always seems to have the news first, whether it’s a new Asian American movie that’s coming out… she just always has thoughts on it.
Valerie Complex really is just such a leader and such a voice. Especially with Black Lives Matter lately, if you want to follow anybody, I feel like she’s a person that is really, really important to know what her viewpoint is and how she’s experiencing everything in the world.
Who is an up-and-coming critic that you want people to check out?
I just love Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews) so much. He’s written for Mediaversity a few times, so I feel like it’s been exciting for me to see his writing grow over the past year. He’s just getting better and better. And what I love about his work especially is that, one, you can tell how much he loves movies. His enthusiasm is really infectious.
Is there an actor or director or a screenwriter whose work you always love? Regardless of what they make, you know you’re going to watch it.
Barry Jenkins has just consistently done such gorgeous work. Wong Kar-Wai has such a lovely aesthetic… And then when I even think about it one step further, I’m like actually, and then Barry Jenkins was really influenced by Wong Kar-Wai. I’m sensing a theme here.
Do you binge watch TV?
I definitely do. And ever since coronavirus, I’ve been watching a lot of Asian dramas and things.
What have you been watching lately?
I just finished Triad Princess on Netflix.
Do you do most of your screenings from your couch or in theaters?
Definitely not in theaters now. In general, I do things from home anyways, other than film festivals. It’s film festivals or home and lately, of course, it’s just been home.
What about a favorite screening snack?
I’m pretty boring with this one. Popcorn’s good!
What’s a Rotten thing that you love?
The Rotten movie I love echoes the one I watched repeatedly, which is Velvet Goldmine. Because it’s so experimental and unabashedly queer, I think it gets a bad rap from the everyday moviegoer looking for something more conventional.
Do you go in cold when you’re reviewing or do you try to learn as much as you can, spoilers be damned?
I definitely do more research, especially because a Mediaversity review is different than other ones, which might be coming out earlier and summarize a plot and let people know about a movie. On my end, we dive pretty deep and a lot of our reviews have spoilers. I do a lot of research.
How does that influence your perspective on how the story is told? Do you think that it does?
Yeah, it definitely affects it. An example might be the movie Waves. If you’re just looking at the trailer, it definitely looks like it’s a “Black movie” – predominantly people of color in the cast. And then if you find out that, oh, the director is white, then there’s more of a story there and it makes you wonder maybe like why this was the chosen subject matter. And then that just usually will lead to some interesting answers.
Do you read other reviews before you write your own?
Probably three quarters of the time, I’ll read other reviews. It helps me understand what the general conversation is. And then that way, again, because my reviews come out later, I like to add something new to the conversation. I try to make sure I’m not just repeating what everybody has already said.
Is there an under-the-radar director or screenwriter that you think more people should know about?
Since I feel like I come at the film criticism world from the outside, I’m not sure that I have people who I think are under-the-radar. I will say one director that I’ve been discovering for the first time… Edward Yang, he was a Taiwanese director. He passed away, but he had this movie A Brighter Summer Day. And it just completely blew my mind when I watched it.
With this quarantine, but I’ve been revisiting a lot of older movies and this isn’t stuff I would normally do, but I’ve completely gone down the rabbit hole of 1980s and 1990s Taiwanese movies. Because I’m Taiwanese, and it’s just kind of a fun way for me to get to know that culture. Edward Yang is one of the directors that has come out of that movement who has really incredible work. And also I’m finding that I really like Tsai Ming-liang, he’s also another of the Taiwanese new wave directors.
What do you consider required viewing?
I don’t think anything should be “required viewing.” I’m really not prescriptive. I think anybody should be able to enjoy movies and TV shows the way they want to. And I think it’s really snobby for anyone to say, “You have to see this to understand that.” No, everybody’s experience is different. I would say nothing is required.
Do you have advice for critics who are still finding their voice?
That’s an easy one. Just write. I’m sure everyone says the same thing. Just write, write, write, write, write, like make a ton of mistakes. Write for different outlets. Just keep throwing everything at the wall and then it eventually shakes itself out.