Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (US - BD RA)
Jonathan tried to tweet this review but the Chinese government blocked it...
One of the most famous and successful artists in the world, Ai Weiwei has earned international acclaim as much for his provocative art work as for his political activism. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the first feature-length portrait of the Chinese artist, filmmaker, and social media maven. Director Alison Klayman is given unprecedented access to Ai from the close of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (for which he helped designed the acclaimed 'Bird's Nest' stadium) to his arrest and 81-day detention in 2011. Presenting a unique look inside modern China, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry captures Ai's artistic process in preparation for major museum shows, his intimate exchanges with family members, and his increasingly public confrontations with authorities. It reveals his irreverence, his humor, and his deeply moral convictions. Art and activism, for Ai Weiwei, come from the same place. (From the MPI synopsis)
I've never considered myself much of an activist. In my high school, students occasionally coordinated walk-outs to leave class and go down to the Capitol to protest anti-gay marriage laws. Even if I was in total agreement with the sentiment, I'd stay in my class and get work done. It wasn't my cup of tea, and usually the people I knew who partook in the activities were too extreme to turn me onto their ways. I was young though, and so were they. While I still don't see myself as much of an activist, I've come to admire and embrace such characters as necessary catalysts in the making of important social change. Ai Weiwei is one of those characters, and the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry tells the recent stories of his activism and artistry as he clashes with the unreasonable censorship of the Chinese government.
The documentary begins examining Ai's life around 2008 when he helped design the 'Bird's Nest' for the Beijing Olympics. He offered to help with the project out of his love for design, but later renounced the project and called the Beijing Olympics a publicity sham. This portion of the documentary feels glossed over. In the audio commentary track, the filmmakers point out that this time was when Ai Weiwei really came to prominence in the public eye. Later that year, the Great Sichuan Earthquake struck, killing thousands. Out of the people killed, many were students that were inside of a school built with shoddy "tofu construction". The Chinese government refused to release statistics on the number of people that were killed in the accident. Another Chinese artist, Tan Zuoren, took it upon himself to begin a citizen's investigation and find out how many lives were lost in the tragedy. He was indicted by the Chinese government for "incitement to subversion of state power". What Ai exposed, and what the filmmakers helped to expose in this documentary, is a side of the Chinese government that is afraid of being honest and open with its citizens. When Ai travels to testify at Zuoren's trial, police broke until his hotel room, hit him on the head, and detained him so he could not speak at the trial. Their actions speak volumes.
The documentary feels more interested in Weiwei's life and activism than his artistic side, but the filmmakers make it very clear that the two are inseparable for him. One of his more famous works, 'A Study in Perspective', shows him simply flipping off national monuments from a first-person point of view. In a video series, Ai's students all repeat the same phrase in their own dialects: "F**k you, motherland". When it gets to Ai, he pauses for suspense, then follows suit. His message is simple and blunt. At first it almost seemed childish to me, but once I grew to understand Ai's background, I couldn't help but admire this hooligan side of his personality. I have no doubt that he is absolutely genuine in his passion. Ai Weiwei's back story is covered in the documentary, perhaps all too briefly. He is son of famous Chinese poet Ai Qing, who also had plenty of run ins with the Chinese government and censorship due to his critical work. It is a heartbreaking story that could probably fill its own documentary, and it really informs Ai Weiwei's choice of lifestyle. There's a lot of Ai Weiwei's tweets shown in the movie. When he gets his head bashed, he takes a picture and uploads it to Twitter. The movie never goes in-depth about how social media and the internet are playing a part in social revolution, but seeing Ai interact with his followers on the website is engaging. Eventually the Chinese government blocked his personal blog and Twitter, and they are no longer accessible in China.
One aspect of the documentary that I appreciated was how human it made Ai Weiwei. He has many followers who practically worship him. Many of his supporters and Twitter followers refer to him as "Ai God". Surely this is a term used out of affection and loyalty, and it no doubt contributes to his larger than life persona, but I find myself identifying much more with the human side of the artist. In one interview showed in the film, he is very frankly asked about a child he is fathering outside of his marriage. The movie takes time to point out Ai Weiwei's critics and what they think of his actions. A popular criticism seems to be that the Chinese government should be cut some slack because of how much progress they have made in the last decade. Ai's response is that it is not enough. Given the events depicted in the documentary, I'm inclined to agree. For Ai, it will never be enough. The latter portion of the documentary gets a little messy. Ai Weiwei was arrested and eventually released under accusation of economic crimes. Perhaps production had to wrap up during an unusual time, but I didn't get a good grasp on Ai Weiwei's current status until I decided to read up on him following the film. While the story feels incomplete, it still makes for a very compelling and fascinating look at a period in Ai Weiwei's life. It left me with a yearning to learn more, which not many documentaries do.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry arrives from MPI with the kind of 1080p transfer you would expect of a documentary. The quality of the footage is constantly varying based on the camera being used, which makes a summation of the video quality difficult to pinpoint. When a nice digital camera is used, the transfer look does quite good, but more often than not there is a lot of old footage, photographs, or zoomed in cameras that don't get the full benefit of an HD presentation. There is some mocked up Twitter footage that looks very sharp. I'm confident that the Blu-ray encode for this film is strong, and the varying quality is the result of compiling footage from many different video sources. If you've seen a documentary and know what you're in for, there are no surprises here.
Like the transfer, the audio for the film comes from various sources. Quality is inconsistent, but I never had trouble making out any of the words from interviews, and if I did it would usually be subtitled. Though it is a modest documentary film, it still boasts a full DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The real highlight of the track is Ilan Isakov's score. It's a beautiful, subtle piece of work that never steals the attention from the footage it gracefully accompanies. The score fills up the 5.1 sound space nicely, sometimes playing in the rear channels lightly while dialogue takes the front and center speakers. The LFE channel is mostly unused, but some soft low tones accompany the music. The rear channels are used appropriately for some ambient noise, but they never make themselves particularly noticeable. For a documentary of mixed footage and mostly interview segments, this audio mix holds up very well.
Extras start with a film maker Commentary with Director Alison Klayman, Producer Colin Jones, and Editor Jennifer Fineran. The film makers give a good recounting of the shooting process and share a lot of thoughts and insights about the interview subjects in the film. They also give a great deal of back story to the scenes that play out, and you get a better since of what it was like to be around Ai Weiwei during the time period this was filmed. There isn't much technical knowledge given, but they do discuss the editing process and some key choices that went into it. Next up is a good bulk of Deleted Scenes (HD, 39:53) that mostly consist of Ai Weiwei wandering around and interacting with followers, or visiting new places. In one scene he returns to a restaurant he visited in the film to mingle with fans. There's a few scenes that show more of Ai Weiwei's artistic personality, which may be why they didn't make it into the more activism-centered feature film. The next feature, Interviews (HD, 24:07), has some alternative and extended footage from all of the people that were interviewed in the film. None of it struck me as particularly fascinating, but there's some good stuff here for fans. Last of all there is an HD theatrical trailer.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry lacks the level of craftsmanship that many great documentaries posses, but it scores a lot of points for its gripping subject matter and open portrayal of an artist/activist worth getting to know. This Blu-ray release from MPI has a transfer that varies in quality based on the documentary footage being shown, but it never looks bad and the interview audio is great. There is also a decent amount of extras. Ai Weiwei is seen handing out documentaries that he made himself in the film. It would've been nice to see one of those show up in the special features section.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 4th December 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin & English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, Simplified Chinese
Extras: Filmmaker Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Interviews, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alison Klayman
Cast: Ai Weiwei, Danqing Chen, Ying Gao
Length: 91 minutes
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