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Review: Ai Weiwei Is Both Movie Star and Director in New Docs 'The Fake Case' And 'Stay Home!'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 22, 2013 at 8:58AM

Ai Weiwei might be the most insuppressible suppressed artist of his time.
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"Stay Home!"
"Stay Home!"

Gradually, it becomes clear that Ximei leads an oppressed existence. Like Ai, she's stalked by the government at every corner, which only pushes her to complain louder, as she petitions the government for more affordable treatment and complains about the physical efforts she must invest in receiving it. She constantly talks through the ramifications of her actions with a genial resolve, much as Ai does in the documentaries about him. "They can't find a way to control me because there is none!" she says with her ever-present smile.

While not a prominent artist, she takes a like-minded stand for the prospects of publicizing her plight. At the Center for Disease Control, officials attempt to block the camera following her. "I like it," she insists, which prompts a thinly veiled threat: "What if you're ostracized?"

That two-way dialogue between official and citizen complicates the equation by humanizing the people responsible for Ximei's challenges. While Ai talks about the government's impact on him as if it were an invisible menace, in "Stay Home!" Ai finds a human element in the authorities through a jovial middleman who's tasked with tracking Ximei's every move. He insists it's a more complicated picture. "The government isn't impotent," he says, claiming that his job is to present Ximei's needs to the authorities so they can provide for her. Ximei openly ribs her overseer for his ineffectual role in her life. "Film it!" she blurts out after teasing him for the camera. "It's the government's image."

That assertion results in a more sophisticated portrait than anything visible from Ai's privilege spot in his studio, the main set piece for both "Never Sorry" and "The Fake Case." Ximei's rambunctiousness also leads her pontificate on how new generations will deal with the same challenges, echoing Ai's thoughts in "The Fake Case" about the burgeoning resistance to bureaucratic control among children of the eighties. In "Stay Home!," it's as if he's speaking through her -- the ultimate illustration of Ai's activism come to life.

Both "The Fake Case" and "Stay Home!" end in song, though "The Fake Case" uses music to further the spectacle of its subject and Ai applies the device as a means of digging deeper into the life of his character. "The Fake Case" concludes with the absurdist image of Ai taking a shower (a visual he offers up to a needy reporter eager to land an exclusive interview) set to a brassy version of "You Know How I Feel." In the climactic moments of "Stay Home!," Ai tracks his subject as she wanders through a lush forest, while the sounds of her Christian friends chanting a prayer for her survival underscores the tension between her state of isolation and the thread of hope that keeps her going.

It's a remarkable juxtaposition with the way documentarians tend to frame Ai: While the conclusion of "The Fake Case" embodies the playful quality of Ai's approach to his conundrum, the artist's depiction of a far more troubled victim of the system has a delicacy that shrewdly embodies the paradoxes of contemporary Chinese society. As much as Ai makes an enticing figure of individual revolt against institutional persecution, he's even better at finding it elsewhere.

Criticwire Grades:

"Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case": B

"Stay Home!": A-

HOW WILL THEY PLAY? "The Fake Case" should land a fair amount of festival play due to Ai's elevated profile, but the recent release of "Never Sorry" may keep it from receiving a similarly major theatrical release, though it could find a welcome home in digital markets and television. "Stay Home!" faces a harder time gaining exposure, only poised to receive further attention if the wider documentary festival circuit makes an effort to keep it out there.

This article is related to: Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, Stay Home!, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), CPH:DOX, Documentary, China, Chinese, Festivals, Reviews