Last year I was lucky enough to catch the tale-end of a Toronto exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s work. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on the renowned Chinese artist’s stuff but even then you can see the acidic commentary on the Chinese government clean off the bat. Andreas Johnsen’s insightful documentary proves an educational look at the inspirational man behind the work, but most of all a disturbing glimpse into what fuels his message.
From the beginning of the film, Weiwei is a picture of composure: dignified, friendly, wise, considerate, a family man. It is unsettling then to learn of his incarceration at the hands of a totalitarian government who kept him isolated for 80 days in a blank room with 3 guards, then released him unceremoniously to continue persecuting him. The intended message is clear: no one fucks with the Chinese government.
Struggling against the titanic force of a 1984 caricature, a party so villainous it’s a real life version of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, Weiwei remains zen and considerate, even mischievous, finding a few opportunities to stand defiant in front of his persecutors. Johnsen’s camera shows much of the enigmatic artist, his family, his life post-prison, the ominous control the government still exerts on Weiwei and his supporters, but the overwhelming amount of support he garners from the world and his fellow countrymen alike. The sounds of the Hong Kong cityscape play loud and ominous through distressing segments of the film, most notably during a display of Weiwei’s work at the end of the film.
This is a film that has to be seen, not simply as a fantastic account of Weiwei and his methods, but as a frankly terrifying look at the corruption inherent in an empire and the potential turning of a tide against it.