Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (review)

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry yellow light

I’m “biast” (pro): none
I’m “biast” (con): none
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There is no question that Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and vocal dissident of China’s repressive dictatorship, is one of the most colorful and most significant global figures of the early 21st century. From decrying the 2008 Beijing Olympics for which he helped design the central stadium to smashing ancient pottery — or covering it with corporate logos — as a protest against China’s extensive bulldozing of its own past to using Twitter and other social networking to electrify and incite the Chinese public, Ai is by turns provocative, contradictory, infuriating, and inspiring. An embarrassment and an irritant to the Chinese government, he is both a symbol of that nation’s entry onto the world stage and a reminder of how far apart it is — philosophical, politically, culturally — from other global players: disappearing an internationally renowned figure for months in 2011 was probably not the best PR move the Chinese government could have made.

As an introduction to Ai’s life and work, Alison Klayman’s documentary portrait is worth a look, for we will surely hear more from Ai, currently still under a sort of house arrest in Beijing; whether China opens up more or shuts itself up more tightly, there seems to be little doubt that Ai will feature somehow in such a move. But Klayman’s feature debut has a sense of the gloss to it: Ai is such a complex man, and he’s operating in an environment that is alien to most Westerners, and so at every turn here, I wanted to get into much more depth than Klayman takes us to. Ai is no stranger to the West, for instance — he lived in New York as a student and artist for more than a decade in the 1980s and 90s — so opportunities seem rife for meatier crosscultural exploration. (How are China and the West responding and reacting to one another, politically and culturally, as represented by Ai’s work? is one possible avenue that is barely touched on.) And I’d love to know more and see more about Ai’s art, which almost feels like an afterthought here.

Granted, probably any avenue any filmmaker took would leave us feeling like something was getting overlooked, Ai is that big a personality and that big a conundrum. I don’t envy the task Klayman took on. I just wish it felt a little less scattershot.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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