Monday, September 3, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" Movie Review

Meet the world’s unlikeliest force for social revolution in China: an overweight, foul-mouthed, Twitter-addicted transgressive artist that likes to break Qin Dynasty pottery and eat dozens of corn-beef sandwiches in one sitting

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Director: Alison Klayman

I caught a documentary a couple of nights ago called “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” and it was awesome. It’s the story of this one guy that lives in a massive, ivy-covered cinder-block compound in Beijing with about a hundred cats, and every time he’s on screen he’s doing one of three things; saying really, really philosophical things about transparency and liberty while giving pointers on how to create post-modern art out of bar stools, uploading pictures of himself flipping off national monuments to Twitter, and of course, stuffing food down his face-hole. Seriously, in every scene in the movie, this Ai Weiwei guy is never more than five feet away from a giant plate of food; he’s sort of like Michael Moore, if Michael Moore was Chinese and more into Warholian art than documentary filmmaking.

Ai Weiwei is a fascinating subject for a documentary, to be sure. He spent his early adult years hanging out in NYC, where he garnered a name for himself by sewing condoms into rain slickers and selling them for exorbitant prices at art shows. In his middle-aged years, he became one of mainland China’s most famous architects, and even had a hand in constructing the iconic “Bird’s Nest” from the 2008 Sumer Olympics. But, Ai Weiwei, of course, ain’t just your typical avant-garde wunderkind; he’s also one of the world’s most beloved social dissidents.

For awhile, Ai Weiwei ran a blog, where he embarked upon a massive multimedia project to tell the story of how students died in the Sichuan earthquakes from a while back because of how crappy their housing was. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government had just a LITTLE problem with this, and he got the ban-hammer from the Great Firewall. After that, Ai Weiwei discovered Twitter, and became perhaps the world’s foremost  - or at least, the pithiest - political activist in cyberspace.

In “Never Sorry,” we follow Ai Weiwei around as he micromanages his triple life as post-modern artiste, cyber-revolutionary AND a dude with an incredibly complex home life (apparently, his wife seems to be completely OK with the fact that he got his girlfriend knocked up AND routinely invites her over so they can eat crabs and candy bars.) He’s essentially under house arrest, but periodically gets the opportunity to leave Beijing so he can drop a philosophical load on European art-museum patrons. He paints the Coca-Cola logo on REAL Ming Dynasty vases and hires hundreds of people to paint up 108 million synthetic sunflower seeds to strew about the floors of some Euro-Trash art gallery. Well, when he’s not going to Germany to have his head examined for blunt force trauma, anyway.

That little subplot is actually the heart of the movie, when you really think about it. Ai Weiwei was hanging out in his hotel room one night, when the cops busted in for a random “ID check” and one of them decided to club him upside the skull. For the rest of the movie - and remember, this entails a real-life span of several years - Ai Weiwei runs around, filing police complaint after police complaint, and posting photos of both his attacker AND his facial injuries online. Ai Weiwei knows that he’ll never bring the dude to justice, but that’s not really the point he’s trying to make here. We’ve got the technology, we have the venues to bring about real social change, and we’ve got a market that, on the surface, seems to be willing to help us out; the question now is, will all of this viral truth ultimately lead to the powers-that-are in China loosening the reins a bit and letting people have just a modicum of political leeway? Seeing as how Ai Weiwei spent almost three months in “secret detention” for, ahem, “tax evasion,” I just don’t see that little pipe dream coming to fruition anytime soon.

The portrait of China painted in “Never Sorry” is an utterly fascinating one. Like in “1984,” Big Brother has cameras mounted everywhere, and plain-clothes-police roam the city streets with camcorders, looking more like naïve college students on spring break than authoritarian forces. The really interesting thing, however, is that the citizenry seems to have flipped the script and begun using those SAME audio-visual mechanisms to showcase police brutality and state corruption. In more than one scene, we watch freedom-desiring youth jab jaws with policemen…and the entire time, they both have video cameras shoved in each other’s faces.

“Never Sorry” is one of the few movies I’ve seen that really cuts into how “real life” and “digital life” are cross-pollinating and re-shaping our constructs of society. Ai Weiwei is a man that, physically, lives cemented in the ground, but thanks to the Internet, he’s an expansive cultural force that was named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview. There’s a great scene in the film where Ai Weiwei reflects on the honoring, and says that he doesn’t feel empowered at all. “Being powerful,” he says, really means that you’re more fragile than most people, that you’re scrutinized and censored and held under a microscope until your sense of personal identity almost completely vanishes into the great collective. It’s sort of the flipside to the excellent 2009 documentary “We Live in Public” - here’s a man whose individuality is only permitted through machine-assisted communication, whose freedom exists solely in the form of tweets and the aberrant NPR web-interview. That’s the kind of cultural duality that could really drive a man apart, but Ai Weiwei has such a rooted air to him that you wonder if anything short of a “total freak accident that in no way, shape or form could involve foul play” will get him to close his yap.

He’s a plucky individual, no doubt about it, and a guy that knows how to harness “people power” better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen. He gets dozens of people to show up at bistros so they can take photos of him eating noodles with their camera phones, and while he’s “temporarily disappeared,” thousands of his fans show up at a studio doomed to razing and throw themselves a last-second feast before the bulldozers storm in. And after those same fans help him raise more than $2 million to pay off his “mysterious” tax liens, he rewards the masses as any post-modern artist would; by uploading a video of him singing a song about horses having sex in the mud and screaming the “f” word in Mandarin for two minutes straight.

There’s no denying this Ai Weiwei guy has a hunger for social reform. In fact, he might even want infrastructural political change in China more than he wants corn beef sandwiches. Well…maybe.



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