"The artist Ai Weiwei has not been heard from since Sunday morning Beijing time, when he was detained at the Beijing airport before a routine flight to Hong Kong," reports the New Yorker's Evan Osnos. "Beijing is in the midst of what I call the Big Chill, an ongoing sweep of Chinese writers, activists, lawyers, and others, which constitutes the most intense crackdown on expression in years. If Ai Weiwei stays in custody, this will mark the most high-profile arrest yet. As I wrote last year in my Profile of Ai, this is not the first time that he has been detained. But early indications suggest that this detention may be something different."
The chilling news breaks just as a series of programs of Chinese independent cinema rolls out in San Francisco, Los Angeles and, at the end of the month, New York. "In response to the democracy uprisings in the Middle East, the monitoring of public spaces, online social networks, emails and cellphone calls have greatly intensified," writes Kevin B Lee in the LA Weekly. "And yet this authoritarian clenching can't fully contain the explosive activity coming from an infinitely resourceful generation of free-thinking, tech-savvy Chinese. On the filmmaking front, digital technology has enabled the production and small-scale distribution of hundreds of DIY features, whose aesthetic and socio-political daring can make American indies look tame."
Fearless: Independent Chinese Documentaries opens today at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Karamay (2009), a doc "which cries out for an audience willing to endure its wholly justified 6-hour-plus running time," as Frako Loden writes in her Evening Class overview of the series running through April 21. "Everybody in China knows about the '12/08/94 Incident' in which 323 people died, 288 of them schoolchildren, in a fire that broke out in the cheaply constructed and illegally modified Friendship Theatre in the oil company town of Karamay in far northwestern Xinjiang province. Because the children died obeying instructions to remain seated so that inebriated Communist Party cadres could escape first, the government hastily assured the bereaved that the victims would receive 'national martyr' status — one of many promises that it didn't keep… Director Xu Xin visits the victims' families on the 13th anniversary of the tragedy and witnesses their still explosive rage and recriminations… This is politically engaged cinema at its most appalling best — a must-see."
Between Disorder and Unexpected Pleasures: Tales From the New Chinese Cinema is a four-day program opening at REDCAT on Wednesday, kicking off a series of related screenings in the greater Los Angeles area. Much of the program, for example, will screen again at the Pomona College Museum of Art from April 11 through 14. The Los Angeles Filmforum will be presenting the US premiere of Treatment (2010) by Wu Wenguang with Beyond-ism (2010) by Sun Xun on April 10; the following day, Sheng Zhimin's Night of an Era (2009) screens at the Echo Park Film Center; and the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan's A Disappearance Foretold (2008) on April 17 and Zhao Ye's Jalainur (2008) on April 22. Tales From the New Chinese Cinema then moves onto New York's Museum of the Moving Image, running April 29 through May 1.
In the Los Angeles Times, Reed Johnson notes that "this new generation comprises not only several filmmakers who didn't train at the state-run Beijing Film Academy but also a number of painters- and writers-turned-directors who are bringing fresh visual and narrative approaches to their camerawork. 'I call it this sort of flowering of many voices,' says Cheng-Sim Lim, a film scholar who co-curated Between Disorder. 'You have this breaking up of this very unitary view of Chinese film.'"
Back to Kevin Lee: "Solid as the films are, the series' highlights may be in-person appearances by two of China's most exciting auteurs, Oxhide 2 director Liu Jiayin, and bad boy writer–turned-filmmaker Zhu Wen, whose Thomas Mao may be his most accomplished film to date. Zhu paints a lively, shape-shifting relationship between Chinese artist Mao Yan and his patron, Thomas Rohdewald, who bounce through an unpredictable series of scenarios involving everything from broad slapstick involving randy farm-yard animals to sophisticated CGI martial arts satire. Blessed with a limitless supply of playfulness, Thomas Mao does much to prove that in the wild world of Chinese cinema, freedom is a state of mind."
Update, 4/4: Still no word from Ai Weiwei. Tania Branigan reports in the Guardian. Meantime, more from Evan Osnos: "In the fall of 2009, Chinese movie theatres débuted The Founding of a Republic, a big-budget political extravaganza to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. Around the same time, in no theatres anywhere, Ai Weiwei put out his own film entitled Disturbing the Peace, a no-budget documentary shot with a handheld camera, which documented a bizarre day in Chengdu, in which Ai, the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and others try to find out what happened to one of the artist’s assistants, after she disappeared into police custody following a raid on her hotel room. (In Chinese, the film is known as Laoma Tihua.) It is less a film than a visual record of a Sisyphean trip through the justice system."
Updates, 4/6: Holland Carter in the New York Times on Ai Weiwei: "The noble Confucian model of the morally grounded intellectual speaking truth to power in a single dramatic confrontation was called on so often as to become, seemingly by intention, an unnoble and relentless insistence. And as a result, whatever immunity from reprisal he might once have enjoyed was soon gone… This May an outdoor sculptural piece by Mr Ai, called Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, will be installed at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. To most New Yorkers the dozen large cast-bronze animal heads, corresponding to the signs Chinese zodiac, will be simply winsome, or maybe a little freaky. To anyone knowing the historical reference behind these images, they'll be explosive."
The Cinema Pacific Film Festival opens in Eugene, Oregon today, runs through Sunday, and Shelly Kraicer, the Beijing-based film critic and programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver Film Festival, has co-curated the spotlight Chinese Independent Film: From the Sixth to the Digital Generation. Kraicer discusses the program with dGenerate Films, which has also posted a full festival schedule.
Update, 4/7: Evan Osnos posts a comprehensive update on Ai Weiwei. In short, "all indications suggest the beginning of a lengthy legal process, rather than a quick catch and release."
Update, 4/8: "Chinese authorities closed Ai's blog in June 2009," writes Hua Hsu for Bookforum. "Now, about one hundred of his writings have been translated and collected in an essential book, Ai Weiwei's Blog. Ai might not have spent much time on the Internet prior to his rebirth as a digital activist, but he was certainly no media naïf. His father was a renowned poet who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and sentenced to decades in a labor camp. Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and after briefly terrorizing the city's art establishment, he spent most of the 1980s and early 90s working and studying in New York. He became a star of the global art world in the 2000s, initially for his brash, irreverent defacement (or destruction) of centuries-old Chinese artifacts. He eventually moved toward more ambitious installation pieces animated by themes of interconnectedness and community." On Ai's blog, "Numerous seemingly random posts about the ideas of Andy Warhol communicate a sly, knowing context for how Ai has chosen to use his image… Unlike Han Han, the young Chinese blogger and race-car driver whose career seems a trial balloon for a new kind of Chinese super-celebrity, Ai represents a more hopeful, collective possibility for China's digital future."
Image above: Ai Weiwei's Map of China (2003) is made from wood recovered from demolished temples. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.