Today in soft power wins: it’s just been confirmed that Sky Ladder, a stunning documentary about Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang that was released internationally by Netflix last October, will get a theatrical release in the artist’s home country later this month.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland), Sky Ladder traces Cai’s life from his upbringing in the southern port city of Quanzhou, to his education in Shanghai, to his meteoric rise to the status of global art star and his decades-long quest to complete the titular work, “Sky Ladder,” his magnum opus. It features deep interviews with Cai along with prestigious talking heads such as American writer and professional China hand Orville Schell, who introduces the viewer to the Cultural Revolution and praises Cai’s art for its “integrity” and “deep social conscience.”
Though commentary of friends and onlookers like Schell positions the film towards a Western audience, there’s not much in it — nor in Cai’s ouevre itself, which consists mainly of elaborate fireworks displays that he calls “explosion events” — to displease censors in China. Cai himself remains mostly apolitical in his own on-screen reminiscences, even when talking about points in his past at which his work was directly affected by government intervention.
In a review I wrote when Sky Ladder came out, I summarized Cai’s political stance:
In 2014, he coordinated a fireworks display for the Beijing meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), causing some to question his relationship with the Chinese government. Despite setbacks and creative clashes, Cai completed his work for the event according to its overseers’ specifications. The documentary is hesitant to wade too deep into politically heated waters. Cai does, however, speak candidly about his role both in the APEC meeting and the 2008 Olympics, arguing that his participation in such globally important events is no different from that of UK art star Damien Hirst, who created a specially commissioned work for the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. He talks about the tension between challenging authority and entertaining the masses in his work, saying that he wanted to make people feel “open” with his Olympics display. “As artists, can’t we help change the system by working within it?” he asks.
That question is left to hang rather open-endedly in the documentary, and it took a while for the film to work its way through the relevant departments at home, but it was reported yesterday (link in Chinese) that Sky Ladder will open in China one week from today, on Friday, September 22, with a 100-city premiere.
Doesn’t seem like it lost too much on the censorship chopping block, either: Chinese film site Douban lists a running time of 73 minutes, only 3 minutes shorter than what Sky Ladder clocks on iMDB. I’d bet the rest of my bitcoin that those three minutes are pretty heavy on Orville Schell, a vocal critic of the Chinese regime.
In any case, it’s a rare, heartening soft power boon for China to throw the weight of its burgeoning film industry towards one of its true originals, so we’ll take it, edits and all.
Watch Sky Ladder on Netflix here.
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