Notes on Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center) by Joseph Pomp

Notably chubby.  Uncontrollably rebellious.  These are the first two phrases that pop into my mind when thinking about Ai Weiwei.  They also exemplify how Ai is simultaneously drawing on and sparring with traditional Chinese values.  Plumpness has been as desirable a trait in Chinese history as dissidence has been unacceptable. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a new documentary by first-time director Alison Klayman, focuses on showing how Ai—a visual artist, activist, documentary filmmaker, and Twitter star—is such a patriot that, in this critical era in Chinese history, he needs to be the nation’s biggest troublemaker, too.

As one talking head says in the film, “Among all the Chinese artists I know, he is probably the only one who, deep down, really cares about this country and what happens to it.”  Klayman justifiably depicts Ai as a sort of superhero, a one-man vigilante force out to expose the hypocrisy and carelessness of the Chinese government.  Ai has pursued many “extracurricular” activities that at first seem like publicity stunts demonstrating his irreverence toward authority but which in actuality are vital probings of the bureaucracy and corruption that characterizes the government of the People’s Republic of China.  The two major projects presented in the film are his controversial research into the tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 5,385 students and his pursuit for justice against a Chengdu police officer (linked to the investigation of the Sichuan earthquake) who brutally punched Ai in the head in August 2009.

Perhaps the funniest, but also most revealing moment in the film comes when Ai stages an outdoor dinner in front of a Chengdu restaurant and invites his Twitter followers to join him.  A dedicated group of self-proclaimed “Ai Fans” show up and successfully disturb the local police officers who continue to deny that they raided Ai’s hotel room and assaulted him.  “When do you think this dinner will be done?” one officer asks him. “It will just be useful for us to know.”  This emphatically banal moment highlights the senselessness—and occasional comedy—of Communist Party rule.

Although the documentary focuses on Ai’s recent brushes with the law, it also informatively chronicles both his education in Beijing and then New York in the 1980s as well as the foundation of his art career back in China.  More than just a primer on Ai’s life and politics, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is essential viewing for anyone interested in contemporary China, modern art, or the central place of the internet in today’s global culture.