It has been almost two years since Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry hit theaters (read my review). For a comprehensive film on the Chinese dissident artist who was so open to expressing himself both artistically and personally there was one part in the film that felt chillingly obscured. During the two-year shoot, he was taken by police and put in jail. No one heard a word from him, not even his family, for 81 days. Then he reappeared but refused to answer questions from the filmmakers, supporters or journalists wanting to know more about his charges or what happened in prison.
Here comes Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case to fill in the gap. In some ways it feels like a sequel to its predecessor. It opens with that scene of his night-time return home and the waiting foreign media lobbing questions at him, but all he can say is, “I cannot talk about it.” Also, the style of Danish director Andreas Johnsen is so similar to American director Alison Klayman, I had to check whether he was involved in the former film in some capacity. He was not. Even his style of editing is similar: lots of quiet establishing shots of Ai’s home or his cats doing their thing before cuts of casual vérité distance featuring Ai talking to someone and looking directly in the camera.
However, The Fake Case was shot over a shorter period of time and is clearly more focused on this “Fake Case” against Ai: tax evasion (as an American friend of Ai explains, the film’s title is apt because the Chinese do not pay taxes). In some ways, the narrow focus of subject and time frame of shooting works to the film’s detriment because it doesn’t have the getting-to-know-Ai sentiment of the earlier film. Whereas Never Sorry captured a dynamic growth in the artist’s role as an activist, Ai is more fully formed in this film but less dynamic. Still, he is no less insightful, as he is prone to explain his desire to express himself despite the autocratic regime’s attempt to undermine his efforts at every turn. “If I don’t act now, I believe, then I’m dead already,” he says about possible death threats.
Much of Klayman’s observations may feel redundant to those who have seen Never Sorry. As in the previous film, Klayman captures the anonymous affection for Ai from the Chinese public, which arrives in paper planes made of money thrown over the wall of his home. There is even a confrontation with police by Ai, angered when a photographer shows up at his home with scratch marks. His family once again appears, and the audience is reminded of his father’s persecution as a poet in China.
Though those who were introduced to Ai via Never Sorry probably should not expect newer insight into the artist, The Fake Case offers a more comprehensive look into his legal difficulties while he creates a new piece literally illustrating scenes of his captivity in the form of large diorama in black boxes (the poster art above is an example of one). It is ironic that his popularity insulates him from further persecution, as the Chinese prosecution, despite intimidation tactics that scare off virtually all Ai’s lawyers, figures its best strategy is to not to call further attention to the artist. Still, the police keep tabs and passive aggression is wielded menacingly above Ai. Still, even though the film ends rather open-endedly, Ai never seems to lose hope. He says of China, “One day it will completely collapse. When, I’m trying to figure out.”
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case runs 86 min., is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles and is not rated (expletives and nudity in art). It is currently playing my area, South Florida at O Cinema and Boca Raton’s Living Room Theatres until July 3. If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.