Cage-rattling Chinese artist Ai Weiwei lives in a Beijing complex with his wife and some 40 cats and dogs. Only one of the animals — a cat — has figured out how to open the door to the outside. This ready-made metaphor arrives early in Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and is never mentioned again. But it underlies the tale of one of the few contemporary Chinese who publicly defies the government.
Klayman, a former NPR intern making her first feature, got extraordinary access. She followed Ai not just to Munich and London for the installation of major exhibitions, but also to Sichuan, where the artist crusaded against the shoddy construction he blames for the death of 5,200 schoolchildren in the 2008 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people.
A portly man with a scraggly beard and an irrepressible manner, Ai is an ideal international spokesman for both art and freedom. He's the son of a noted revolutionary poet who fell out with Mao and was banished to the provinces during the Cultural Revolution. But Ai also lived in the U.S. (mostly New York) for 12 years and speaks excellent English. In Sichuan, Ai happily eats pig trotters in broth; in New York, he prefers corned-beef sandwiches with Coca-Cola. (He's also very fond of a certain four-letter English word.)
Like other international art stars, Ai uses scores of assistants to craft conceptual art that's tangible and collectible — and therefore worth money. When he dumps 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds on the floor of London's Tate Modern, he's made a statement about individuality amid collective identity. He's also created objects that can be (and were) sold for a considerable sum.
As Ai says in the film, he's "a brand for liberal thinking and individualism."
That's more than Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst can claim. It's also more dangerous than what they do. In this movie's final chapter, Ai is detained for 81 days and released under the constraints of a gag order: no interviews with journalists and, above all, no further use of Twitter, the service that allowed him to evade China's Internet censorship after his blog was banned. (He did in fact cease tweeting for a time, though he's since resumed.)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a portrait of a brave (or simply stubborn) eccentric in action. It's not a comprehensive study of Ai's art, which the movie covers only glancingly, and mostly in terms of its political aspects. Viewers will need some background on Ai's work, or do some fast thinking, to understand the significance of its various forms and themes. (His Munich installation, for example, spells out a Chinese phrase using blue and pink backpacks. It's a reference to the backpacks of the dead Sichuan students, but that's easy to miss.)
The movie is not, of course, a two-sided discussion of Ai's dispute with Chinese authoritarianism. Klayman captures the rage of police officers and low-level officials in Sichuan, where Ai is clubbed in the head (off-screen) for his defiance. But the higher-ups who decide where to set the limits of Ai's provocation are not about to appear on camera to discuss his case.
Ai, it should be noted, went to film school in China, not to an art academy. He and his team have made many documentaries about his political concerns, and his flair for direct visual images is clear in such works as the photo-collage in which he gives Tiananmen Square the finger. Ai is a great movie subject for many reasons, but one is that he understands the power of appearing larger than life on the silver screen. (Recommended) Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.