Category: Movie Review

Just for Fun – Movie Review: The Search for General Tso

By , January 9, 2015

search for GTGeneral Tso is only one of the many fascinating characters that appear in this charming documentary that seeks to uncover the origins of one of America’s favorite dishes: General Tso’s Chicken. But The Search for General Tso is more than just a story of a dish central to America, it also recounts the history and struggle of those who make the dish.

General Tso starts simply enough, asking how did Chinese food become so popular in America and who was this General Tso. It’s that question – and uncovering how the dish came into being – that takes the movie across America, to China and eventually landing in Taiwan. But through that journey, the director – Ian Cheney – deftly interweaves the story of the Chinese in America. Unlike General Tso’s Chicken, that story is not always tasty.

Cheney interviews various historians and academics who explain how a people that represent a little less than 2% of the U.S. population have restaurants in almost every city, town, and village in America. Unfortunately, the explanation is often tied with our prejudice. By the late 1800s, with anti-Chinese laws and bias in California, Chinese

General Tso's Chicken

General Tso’s Chicken

could not find work and were driven into the laundry and restaurant businesses. Many left California in the hopes that other parts of the United States would be less prejudiced. But as the story of David Leong demonstrates, that was often a misplaced hope. A World War II veteran, Leong moved to Springfield, Missouri to open a Chinese restaurant. In 1963, his new restaurant was bombed days before it was set to open. Leong would eventually find acceptance and popularity after inventing Springfield Cashew Chicken, but his story recounts the prejudice and violence that many Chinese-Americans faced.

But the movie leaves you with hope. The characters are poignantly portrayed -from the collector of Chinese menus (one from 1916!), to the man who travels the United States in an attempt to eat at every Chinese restaurant, to Cecilia and Philip Chang (of P.F. Chang fame), and finally to the chef who invented the dish. And each demonstrates that the love of this dish transcends race and that maybe, just maybe, has brought us all a little closer.

Rating: ★★★½☆

*************************************************************************************
The Search for General Tso will be showing in select theaters throughout the United States this weekend. A complete listing can be found on the movie’s website: http://www.thesearchforgeneraltso.com/

The movie can also be easily downloaded through iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.

Xie Jin’s “Two Stage Sisters” & Xi Jinping’s Recent Thoughts on the Arts

By , October 26, 2014
Movie Poster for Xie Jin's Two Stage Sisters

Movie Poster for Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters

The China Institute‘s Cultural Revolution film series kicked off with a bang the other week with a rarely-viewed Xie Jin (pronounced Sye Gin) film, Two Stage Sisters (舞台姐妹).  All of the films being shown  makes this little series a gem.  But it is the series’ fortuitous timing – with President Xi Jinping’s (pronounced See Gin-ping) recent speech on the arts – that makes it a must see for anyone trying to understand the possible direction China’s arts may take in the future.

Two Stage Sisters, filmed in 1964 during a more open time before the onset of the Cultural Revolution, breaks down any notion that  propaganda films from this time period could not also be art.  The film follows the lives of two Shaoxing opera actresses – Yuehong and Chunhua – as they travel through a turbulent time in China’s history.  The film opens in 1935’s rural China.  Chunhua, who has run away from her in-laws who had plans to sell her, finds herself hiding in the store room of a local opera troupe.  The troupe – run by Yuehong’s father – adopts her and discovering that she has a natural talent for Shaoxing opera, makes her the star of the show along with Yuehong.  Showing the abusive practices of pre-revolution China, after the father dies, the two stage sisters are sold to a Shanghai opera troupe to pay off their father’s debts.

In early 1940s Shanghai, Yuehong and Chunhua become stars.  But slowly, as China begins to change, so does the relationship between the two women.  Chunhua remains the virtuous peasant.  Even when a wealthy patron wants to adopt her as her daughter, Chunhua, ever pure to the art, rejects the patron’s advances.  Yuehong questions Chunhua’s decision and is slowly seduced by the opera troupe’s manager as well as the Guomingdang, bourgeois lifestyle that he offers.  While Chunhua, inspired by Lu Xun’s work, begins to write revolutionary operas, Yuehong retires and fills her life with pearls, furs and diamonds.

Two Stage Sisters is marked by amazingly intense melodrama with the growing tension between the two sisters and the impending revolution

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

building in every scene.  It is in that melodrama that director Xie Jin excels and makes this film into a masterpiece.   The drama crescendos in an artfully shot courtroom scene that demonstrates that if history did not get in the way, Xie Jin could have been China’s Kurosawa.

But like most things in China, history and politics did get in the way, essentially putting Xie Jin’s career on hold for the next twenty years.  Two Stage Sisters, filmed with the approval of Xia Yan (pronounced Syia Yen), China’s Vice Minister of Culture, was produced at time when Mao Zedong’s power was at its lowest due to the tragic debacle of the Great Leap Forward.  But that period would not last and it is the Cultural Revolution itself that becomes Mao’s plan to regain complete power.

With the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Xie’s film was condemned precisely because it had not been hard enough on Yuehong, the sister that succumbs to materialism.  Xie Jin’s art of portraying even the “villain” in a nuanced and sympathetic manner did not fly during the Cultural Revolution.  For the Red Guards who would begin to rule society for the next few years, Chunhua’s forgiveness of Yuehong came too easy.  For them, Yuehong – an enemy of the socialist state – should have been punished more for her capitalist ways.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Additionally, produced with the assistance of Xia Yan, a vocal critic of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and a target of Mao’s wife and former actress Jiang Qing, Two Stage Sisters’ condemnation was inevitable.  Soon after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Xia was purged and jailed for the eight years.  Xie Jin would spend much of the Cultural Revolution and what should have been the prime of his career in a labor camp.

Two Stage Sisters, and the history that surrounds it, shows that art in the People’s Republic of China, while ostensibly required to “serve the people” in fact serves the political whims of its leaders.  Given this history, Xi Jinping’s recent October 15, 2014 meeting with China’s artists might be a bellwether for his attempts to tie art not just more to the Chinese Communist Party but more to his rule.  The Cultural Revolution found its origin in Mao’s 1943 speech at the Yenan Talks on Literature and Art.  For Mao, the revolution had two fronts – the arts and the military; there was no such thing as art for art’s sake.  Art and literature were essential for a successful revolution and the Yenan Talks made clear that art and literature needed to extol the masses and propel them forward for greater revolution.  At a point though, Mao noted that with the masses’ rising cultural levels, art standards would have to rise as well.  But the art would still need to serve the people.

Xi’s October 15 speech, while not as obvious, has aspects that are eerily similar to Mao’s 1943 Talks.  According to Xinhua News agency, which summarized Xi’s remarks rather than print them, Xi called on artists and authors to be one with the people and to use their art to promote the Party: “Literature and art must reflect well the people’s wishes; it must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism” (translation courtesy of Rogier Creemers).  Xi also digressed on the need to produce quality works for the masses’ increased cultural awareness.

Will Xi try to dominate the arts the way Mao did during the Cultural Revolution?  Or was this just a roundabout way to state the obvious: even

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today's China

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today’s China

Chinese people don’t really want to watch Chinese movies and there is a genuine need to improve quality?  Or is it something else?  For sure we won’t be seeing a Cultural Revolution anytime soon.  But if I was an artist, author or director in China right now, with a speech that makes reference to “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend (百花齐放、百家争鸣的方针),” I would certainly sit this round of art-making out.  That unfortunately means the arts in China – at least those sanctioned by the state – will continue to stay at its current level.

Two Stage Sisters
Director: Xie Jin
1964
Rating: ★★★★½

**********************************************************************************
The China Institute’s Cultural Revolution Film Series runs now through November 19, 2014 with a movie shown every Wednesday night.  Tickets are $15 and each movie is followed by a Q&A session with either the director or someone expert in the movie.  The China Institute is located at 125 E 65th Street in New York City. 

Just for Fun: Movie Review – Lou Ye’s Blind Massage

Lou Ye's Blind Massage

Lou Ye’s Blind Massage

 

Blind Massage, Chinese director Lou Ye‘s (pronounced Low Yeah) new film, should never be introduced as “heartwarming” as it mistakenly was at last week’s New York Asian Film Festival.   “Absolutely fearless” is much more apt. This is a movie that attempts to capture the experience of blindness in the least blind-friendly of mediums – film – and it largely succeeds. For that reason alone, this brave, beautiful movie is a must see. But it’s also a movie that, by following the employees of a blind massage parlor in Nanjing, China,that diverges from the usual narrative and refuses to allow the audience to simply view these characters as saints merely because of their disabilities. Instead, the audience is challenged to view the blind and near-blind masseuses as who they really are: ordinary people just trying to make their way in the rough and tumble world that is China.

The opening scene itself – where the audience is left unable to focus on the key object that resulted in one of the main character’s loss of sight – lets you know that this is no ordinary movie. For many of the scenes throughout Blind Massage, the geography keeps changing and the audience cannot just orient itself by viewing the scene alone. Slowly you come to realize that what you see is no longer reliable. Instead, the audience is required to rely on other senses, in particular the sense of sound – the pouring of the rain, the ringing of bells – to comprehend what is happening; much like the blind must do on a daily basis. Lou perfectly captures this visceral feeling in a scene toward the end of the movie, where one of the blind masseuses – in a delicately, intimate scene – confesses her love to another. But at the end of the scene, you are shocked by the sound of a third person in the room. The audience is just as disoriented, surprised and deprived as the two characters who thought they were having a moment alone.

Lou also dispenses with any sentimentality toward the blind. The blind masseuses – played by both sighted professional actors as well as

Chinese film director Lou Ye

Chinese film director Lou Ye

non-sighted amateurs (who do a great job) – are not the usual wise blind sages often portrayed in Hollywood flicks. Instead, Lou develops the complexity of each character, portraying their foibles as well as their strengths; some you like and some you don’t. Most notably, Lou shows the sexual side of the blind, with awkward and honest sex scenes between some of the characters. But through the stories of each character, the emotional impact of discrimination and the invisibility each must feel in the world of the sighted is evident. It is particularly acute in a bloody, hara-kari-like scene where one character’s self-inflicted wounds symbolize the anguish of his injured pride.

Although there has been much criticism recently regarding the traditional and wholesale compartmentalization of the blind as masseuses in China, Lou Ye does not delve into that discussion. Nor does he have to. Lou’s goal is not to make a political point, but rather a human one: to show what it is like to be blind and to force the sighted to see. And he does so deftly. Even in America, where visual aids are prevalent, the blind and the sighted still do not exist as one; their worlds are largely divided. And while yes, China probably has a worse track record in mainstreaming the blind (only recently has it allowed the blind to take the same college entrance exam as the sighted), it should be remember that it is a Chinese film director that had the courage and sensitivity to attempt to honestly portray the lives of the blind on film.

There are aspects of the script that veer toward the melodramatic, but ultimately Blind Massage is a powerful movie that makes you feel the world of the blind instead of just trying to see it.

Rating: ★★★★½

********************************************************************************************************************************
As of the date of this post, Blind Massage has only shown at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution) and the New York Asian Film Festival.  It is unclear if Blind Massage will be shown more widely in the United States or Europe. 

A scene from Lou Ye's Blind Massage

A scene from Lou Ye’s Blind Massage

Just For Fun – Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin

By , October 13, 2013

a_touch_of_sin_posterA Touch of Sin  (天注定), mainland director Jia Zhangke’s new movie, is certainly not a tourist flick.  While Jia’s cinematography in the movie lends itself to beautiful sweeping vistas of various parts of China, including the gorgeous Three Gorges area, the focus of the film is on the underbelly of China.  An underbelly that is increasingly prevalent across the country and as Jia vividly, artistically and intensely demonstrates, increasingly violent.  To understand present-day China and the pressures, challenges and threats it faces, that underbelly must be seen.

The four narratives that tell the story of A Touch of Sin are not mere embodiments of Jia’s mind. Rather they are ripped from the headlines or more aptly, from weibo, the Twitter-like microblog where news events are often first reported by average citizens, quickly spread throughout the country, and then suppressed by the central government.  Two of the narratives – the murder of an attempted rapist by his sauna worker victim and the suicide of a young factory worker in Dongguan – will be well known to many China watchers as the Deng Yujiao Incident from 2009 and the 2010 Li Hai suicide at Apple’s Foxconn factory in respectively.

The other two stories – that of Dahai (played by the teddy bear-looking Jiang Wu), a villager in a Shanxi coal mining town angry at the corruption that has allowed the selling of the state-owned mine to benefit a select few, and the story of Zhou San (well played by Wang Banqiang), a hitman returning to his less than grateful family in Chongqing for Chinese New Year – are perhaps less well known outside of China.  But, in the case of Dahai, the comparison between the shockingly savage beating which he experiences and that of real-life Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s assault can’t help but be made: both receive a beating by officials (or quasi-officials) in response to their attempts to seek transparency and accountability of “the people’s government” and both have eerily similar head wounds.

In an interview at Asia Society (a must watch before seeing this movie), Jia described his movie and the characters in it as on a quest for dignity –

Dahai seeks his revenge

Dahai seeks his revenge

dignity in a society that is increasingly unequal, dignity in a place that appears to have left so many behind, and dignity in a country where without the rule of law to objectively handle society’s strains, violence is the only answer.

But while Jia’s story certainly focuses on reclaiming that dignity, it is unclear if that is what motivates the individual characters.  For Dahai, does his murderous rage come from a true feeling of societal injustice or from a lack of opportunity to share in the wealth?  It is unclear that if Dahai was put in the same position as the corrupt local officials or his schoolmate, that he wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity.  Is Dahai a “hero” because he had nothing left to be?

The same questions emerge with Zhou San, the hitman.  Does he really choose this lifestyle because it is the only path he can take?  Or is he a lonely, degenerate unable to maintain healthy relationships even with his own son?  The innocently young Foxconn worker (played by Luo Lanshan) leaves you wondering what motivates his suicide – is it the pressures of the factory life or unrealistic expectations about what life is and what to expect?  Only the sauna worker, Xiao Yu (aptly played by Jia’s beautiful wife Zhao Tao), seems to regain her dignity in the traditional sense.  After receiving a beating from her boyfriend’s wife and her henchmen, Xiao Yu doesn’t take a second beating sitting down.  Instead, she kills the man trying to rape her with a fruit knife.  The movie closes with a return to Xiao Yu’s story, where she has had to flee her village and find a new life.  But even with her apparent restoration of dignity, her life still seems like a hopeless, lonely mess.

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

This lack of clarity concerning motivation is what makes A Touch of Sin a fascinating movie and ultimately leads the viewer to realize that the individual stories are less important for Jia than the overarching story of that harsh reality known as present-day China.

That is perhaps what will leave the Western viewer perplexed the most – is this really today’s China?  My movie companion and China-hand (who likes to refer to herself as “your good friend Cynthia Nixon”) questioned if Jia’s movie is in fact present day China and if A Touch of Sin is an accurate portrayal.  Definitely there is a lot of violence in contemporary China; but there always was.  It’s not like 1949 to 1976 was some walk in the park: first the killing of landlords, then the Great Leap Forward, then the Anti Rightist Campaign, and the finally the Cultural Revolution.

But Jia is not attempting to give us a complete perspective of modern day China; nor should he or his art be burdened to do so.  Instead, Jia is attempting to show us the future – that if the Chinese government doesn’t curb the rampant corruption that has corroded China, if it doesn’t deal with huge inequities in both wealth and power, if it doesn’t find a legitimate outlet for society’s inevitable anger (like an independent and functioning legal system), then the violence that permeates his movie will soon be more than just a story from weibo.  It will be destined to be a commonplace occurrence.

This premise might be the reason why Jia’s A Touch of Sin might not make it past the Chinese government censors.  According to Jia, the censors have okay’ed his film and rumor has it that it will begin to be shown in China in November.  There are reasons why the censors might be okay with A Touch of Sin.  Philana Woo over at Jing Daily does a great job of explaining why the film “bows” to censorship, namely by avoiding the obvious – an outright attack of the central government.  Dahai’s issues are local, the central government is never implicated in the decision to sell the mine to an insider who retained all the profits.   Even the story of Xiao Yu was toned down.  Deng Yujiao, the real-life sauna worker Xiao Yu’s character is based on, was attacked not by local businessmen (as Xiao Yu was in the movie), but rather by government officials.

But with its emphasis on China’s increasing violence, A Touch of Sin questions one of the central tenants of the Chinese Communist Party’s

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

(CCP) rule: that the Party’s specific type of leadership is necessary to promote “social stability.”  But with the Party’s inability to deal with the rampant corruption and the increasing inequities in Chinese societies that leave individuals with no other choice but to resort to violence, the myth that is the Party’s promise of social stability becomes apparent.  Jia is looking for an alternative.  Religion, including Catholicism and Buddhism, deftly punctuates key scenes.  Traditional Chinese culture including opera plays and old novels keep returning in each scene.  And Jia has repeatedly mentioned that without a fair legal system, people are left with vigilante justice.

It is this conclusion – that the Party’s version of social stability is a mirage and that there needs to be an alternative be it religious, cultural or legal – that ultimately makes A Touch of Sin subversive and could railroad its showing in China.  For our readers outside of China, make sure you see this one as it is a thought provoking, beautifully shot film.  For our readers in China, get the bootleg copy from your local VCD store.

Rating: ★★★★½

************************************************************************************************************************************

A Touch of Sin is currently showing in New York City through October 17 at IFC and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.  It will then travel throughout the United States.  For schedule, click hereA Touch of Sin will allegedly open in China in November.  For readers in China, we look forward to your feedback when (or if) this movie opens there. 

Just For Fun – Movie Review: The Grandmaster

By , September 25, 2013

Grandmaster coverMany will likely compare Wong Karwai’s new kung fu masterpiece – The Grandmaster  – to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but to do so does a disservice to the artistry, intensity and beauty that is The Grandmaster.  Wong Karwai out did himself on this one and if this movie is still playing at a theater near you, it is a must see on the big screen.

The Grandmaster opens with a dark, fierce, rain-soaked fight scene and center to it all is the white fedora of Ip Man (Tony Leung), perhaps the most famous master of the Wing Chun school of kung fu.  It is 1936 China, the Japanese are on the verge of invading most of China, and the various kung fu schools are seeking to unite.  Northern China’s great Grandmaster visits Foshan in southern China and calls upon the southern schools to present their best pupil to become the nation’s Grandmaster.  Although younger than most, the southern schools choose Ip Man and his Wing Chin technique.  The decision is interspersed with different kung fu school disciples demonstrating and explaining their own style, providing for a deeper understanding of the history of kung fu and seeing some of the moves that Ip Man will eventually adopt.

Ip Man, who was a  real kung fu master and lived in China and Hong Kong between 1893 and 1972, meets his match in the northern Grandmaster’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her “eight fists” school of kung fu.  The fight ends up being a draw but the chemistry between the two is obvious as they each go back to their respective homes, planning a future meeting.

That meeting never happens as history gets in the way, first with the Japanese invasion and eventually with the Communist takeover.  Leaving even his family behind, Ip Man escapes to Hong Kong where he sets up a school.  In the 1960s, Ip Man’s most famous student – Bruce Lee – will join his gym.

As with most Wong Karwai movies, each scene is a painting, with its vivid colors and slow camera shots.  Wong’s tortured stories of longing –

The most intense 5 minutes of film - Zhang Ziyi ready to do battle

The most intense 5 minutes of film – Zhang Ziyi ready to do battle

longing for the woman you love, longing for the life you once led, longing  for vindication – are told with even greater effect and emotion than his prior works.  Wong is surely at the pinnacle of his game.  But what makes The Grandmaster truly a tour de force is the combination of Wong’s style, respect for beauty and downright genius mixed into all the kung fu fight scenes.  The train station fight scene where Gong Er takes on her nemesis is perhaps the most intense five minutes of film making ever made.  And also one of the most beautiful.  Being on the edge of your seat the entire time, you want the scene to end.  But then you don’t because the beauty and gracefulness of Wong Karwai will end with it.

But The Grandmaster is more than just a series of beautifully shot scenes and exciting kung fu fighting.  Rather there is a story there – quite a number of stories – that Wong is trying to tell.  You can’t help wondering when watching the movie if Wong is really currently critiquing modern Chinese culture (or just all modern culture really).  With the modern day’s insistence on the material goods and the changeability of truth, The Grandmaster holds up a mirror to that society and shows the profoundness and spirituality that is kung fu.  That there are things bigger than ourselves in this world.  That with dedication to an art, one can transcend.  Wong Karwai has certainly done that with filmmaking and now he is showing how Ip Man did that with kung fu.

Ip Man with his most famous student, Bruce Lee

Ip Man with his most famous student, Bruce Lee

The version of The Grandmaster shown in the United States is shorter than the one shown in Asia, leaving out perhaps some character development of the more one-dimensional characters.  Also, some of the historical aspects are not mentioned in the US version – it isn’t very clear that Ip Man, as a master of kung fu, wealthy citizen, and Guomindang  (Nationalist) soldier, had to leave China once the Communists took over and thankfully for Hong Kong, his Wing Chun school could live on.

But these are minor critiques in an otherwise incredible piece of cinematography, storytelling, and kung fu genre.  It is a film that must not be missed.

 Rating: ★★★★½

Movie Review – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

By , April 21, 2013

Ai Weiwei with his Tate Modern art installation “Sunflower Seeds”

For the past few years, Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Wayway”) – Chinese artist turned dissident turned heavy metal singer – has occupied the Western consciousness as the voice of China’s activist community.  A larger than life personality and an adept producer and user of social media, Ai is well known to the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, and other Western media outlets.

But is he truly the voice of the Chinese dissident community?  Or just branding himself for success?  Is he even an artist?

Alison Klayman’s provocative documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, doesn’t precisely answer those questions. Instead the movie displays the humanity of the man behind the brand and perfectly captures the oppressiveness and absurdity of the Chinese government’s clamp down on any form of effective dissent.  That approach provides for a compelling documentary that both attempts to explain a complicated man and an even more complicated country.

When Klayman first began filming Ai Weiwei, she did not intend to create a film that adeptly portrays China’s fear of any form of dissent.  Instead, she was filming a Chinese artist whose star was on the rise after assisting with the design of Beijing’s iconic Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

But soon after she began filming, a monumental earthquake hit Sichuan, China, killing over 70,000, many whom were children attending classes

Parents at the Mianzhu School, with children’s backpacks still sprawled on the ground

at schools that it turns out were shoddily built.  The unnecessary deaths of these children and the fact that the Chinese government failed to investigate the causes or even reveal the exact number of children killed, was a life-changing moment for Ai, which Klayman skillfully portrays in the documentary.

In December 2008, Ai begins his single-minded quest to provide transparency to this tragedy.  Through a series of trips to Sichuan, Ai interviews various families to learn the names of the children killed.  In the process he creates a network of volunteers who assist him in this endeavor.  Ai’s work culminates in a moving documentary of his own “So Sorry” which exposes the shoddy construction of school buildings and the subsequent government cover up.

On the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, Ai goes online, publishing the names of these children.  Eventually, he organizes an online campaign where individuals across China can call in and recite one of the children’s names.  The ultimate product is perhaps the most subversive of Ai’s art – it is not just a tribute to the children lost; it is a wake-up call to the Chinese government that it is more than just Ai that wants greater transparency about the Sichuan earthquake; there is a whole bunch of people dissatisfied.

Activists protest the 5 year sentence for Sichuan earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government does not take kindly to Ai’s investigation and call to arms.  He has done the two things that scare the Chinese Communist Party the most – he has been able to effectively galvanize and organize a large swath of the Chinese public nationally and he has been able to subvert the firewalls and use social media to its most.  When he is in Sichuan, he is beaten and prevented from testifying at the trial of earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren; he is followed by local police who create more a scene in trying to “disperse” Ai than if they had left him alone; the Shanghai government – without any trial or hearing – tears down his studio (which they had invited him to build only two years previously); and he is eventually arrested by the Beijing police, kept in an unknown place without access to family, for over 60 days.

All of these actions demonstrate the absurdity by which the Chinese government deals with its people, especially those who seek to hold the government accountable.  Some might refer to this as dissent, but as Ai’s Sichuan earthquake online campaign demonstrates, and later on the “demolition party” he has at his Shanghai studio, it isn’t really dissent when so many ordinary Chinese people are in agreement with him and support him.

Klayman also spends time interviewing Ai about his childhood which, although Ai shortchanges its influence, must have had some impact on his current world view.  Fortunately, Klayman spends some time developing this part of Ai’s story.  Ai’s father – Ai Qing – was a famous revolutionary poet and early communist supporter, joining the Chinese Communist Party and partaking in its historic “Long March.”

But like many intellectuals in the late 1950s, Ai Qing soon felt the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957).  With his new “dissident” label, Ai Qing and his family – including the one-year old Ai Weiwei – were banished to China’s far western province of Xinjiang.  There the Ai family would remain for 19 years.  As Ai Weiwei recounts in his interview, his once illustrious, revolutionary father was forced to clean toilets.  During China’s Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing became his city’s enemy number one and subject to repeated abuse at the hands of the Red Guards.

You can’t help but draw conclusions that Ai Weiwei’s current questioning of authority is a result of what must have been horrible childhood experiences.  Which makes you wonder – what about all the other children of victims of the Cultural Revolution?  Ai is public in his dissatisfaction but you can’t help but think that his emotions must be shared by a large number of China’s “Lost Generation.”

Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is amazing precisely because it never does answer the questions which started this post – does Ai speak for

Guess what Ai Weiwei is telling the Chinese government?

the Chinese people or is he merely a brand.  The movie leaves you confident with the fact that it doesn’t matter.  That this man, and only this man, should be judged on his actions alone, and his actions thus far are sincere and heroic.  By the end of the film, you can’t help but like the guy and cheer him on as he single-handily antagonize the Chinese state in order to have some accountability of the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is both uplifting and scary as Klayman perfectly captures a slice of contemporary China that at times is too quickly described: the cat-and-mouse game between the activists and the Chinese government, that often has serious and dangerous repercussions for the former.   As Ai continues to needle the Chinese government, adeptly using social media to galvanize more ordinary Chinese, what will the Chinese government’s reaction be?  He’s already been detained once.  What else can they do?  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry doesn’t answer those questions because it can’t; only the Chinese government can provide the answer.

Rating: ★★★★★

Director Alison Klayman is currently touring the U.S. with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  Check out her website to see if she will be showing the film near you.  You can also request a screening by emailing screenings@aiweiweineversorry.com or purchase the movie on Amazon: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: