6 Asian art documentaries to watch now

Art Radar‘s pick of six documentaries about Asian contemporary artists that open the eyes and touch the heart.

From Abbas Kiarostami’s hypnotic cinematography to Ushio Shinohara’s violent art supported by a tender marriage, Art Radar recommends six documentaries every art lover should watch.

Zachary Heinzerling, 'Cutie and the Boxer', 2013, video still.

Zachary Heinzerling, ‘Cutie and the Boxer’, 2013, video still. Image by Art Radar.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – directed by Alison Klayman (2012)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei needs no introduction. In the last decade, the international artist, political dissident and human rights activist has become an awe-inspiring, if not distant and enigmatic, household name. First-time director Alison Klayman’s award-winning Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry offers an unprecedented access to the charismatic figure.

In 2008, Klayman was two years out of college and living in China. By a coincidence, she was invited to make a short movie attached to an Ai Weiwei photography show. After that, Klayman became Ai’s shadow, interviewing him at his home-studio on the outskirts of Beijing and following him everywhere else. After two years, she ended up with hundreds of hours of footage, featuring streets, galleries, restaurants and police stations.

Click here to watch the trailer of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)


The result is a powerfully intimate close-up that brings us quite a bit closer to the person behind the huge institutional ‘brand’ that Ai has become. Klayman’s documentary also provides a snapshot of the country that Ai lives in and fights with, offering a provocative slice of contemporary Chinese history. As The LA Times reviews:

Watching “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is like experiencing a thrilling unfinished symphony: the story is enthralling, but it’s not over, and there’s no telling where it’s going. Which makes what we see on screen all the more involving.

Click here to watch the trailer of Cutie and the Boxer (2013)


Cutie and the Boxer – directed by Zachary Heinzerling (2013)  

Ushio Shinohara is an internationally acclaimed action artist known for his “boxing” technique. Wearing boxing gloves dipped in paint, he hurls himself at huge canvases and attacks them with ferocious energy.

In 1972, 19-year-old art student Noriko met 41-year-old Shinohara when she left Tokyo for New York. The morning after their first night together, he asked if he could borrow money for rent. She wrote him a cheque, and six months later she was pregnant and penniless: her furious parents had cut her off.

Another first-time director Zachary Heinzerling portrays this tumultuous yet long-lasting marriage in the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer. The title of the film is taken from Noriko’s graphic cartoon, whose main characters Cutie and Bullie are fictionalised versions of herself and her husband.

The relationship is complex, fascinating and touching: there is love, competition, jealousy and unfailing loyalty between the two talented and charismatic artists. As The New York Times reviews:

The great virtue of “Cutie and the Boxer” is that it refuses to simplify the relationship […] Their marriage has clearly not been easy, and there is lingering sorrow and frustration, as well as persistent money trouble. But there is also warmth and steadfastness, and the exhilarating sense that, even after more than four decades, this lifetime collaboration is still a work in progress.

Click here to watch From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng (2010)


From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Cantonese Contemporary Art in the 1980s – directed by Jane DeBevoise, Claire Hsu, Phoebe Wong, Anthony Yung (2010) 

The gates opened at the end of the Cultural Revolution – or rather, the dam burst. Western ideas and popular culture flooded over the border from Hong Kong to Guangdong in the 1980s.

As a result, a vehement reading fever gripped the South China art scene in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, areas that were previously overlooked in the history of contemporary art in China.

Whether inspired by translated books and articles or TV shows and Canto pop, Chinese artists and critics absorbed, debated and experimented with the exciting influx of new ideas and culture. Based on primary research, rare film footage and personal interviews with key artists, this Asia Art Archive (AAA) documentary re-writes an important chapter in the story of Chinese contemporary art. As AAA director Jane DeBevoise says on the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation site:

there’s a perception that art production in China is highly centralised, emanating primarily from one or maybe two major cities. This, of course, is not true and was especially untrue in the 1980s. China is extremely regional, and so is its academic system. That regionalism was what we wanted to explore.

Click here to watch the full movie The Inner Eye (1957)


The Inner Eye – directed by Satyajit Ray (1972) 

Binode Behari Mukherjee is a veteran figure in Bengal’s art world, born blind in one eye and eventually losing all vision by his early fifties. The Inner Eye is a 20-minute documentary on the Indian artist that covers Mukherjee’s journey from childhood until he lost his eyesight completely. “Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being”, Mukherjee is quoted as saying on the director’s website.

The film was scripted, narrated, scored and directed by Satyajit Ray, becoming all the more moving because of Ray’s evident personal involvement. He follows Mukherjee as the artist continues teaching and making art even after going completely blind. In touching scenes, Ray captures him sketching and drawing entirely from memory, mapping out blank sheets of paper with his fingers. Fittingly, Ray describes the theme of the film to Time Out Bengaluru as follows:

Even for a visual artist, loss of sight need not mean the end of creation.

Click here to watch the full movie Roads of Kiarostami (2006)


Roads of Kiarostami – directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2006) 

Abbas Kiarostami is a renowned Iranian artist and filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take risks. After gaining fame from a series of complex, multi-character films, he devoted himself to a stark minimalist philosophy. By ignoring narrative, editing and sometimes even camera movement, Kiarostami asks the viewer if s/he dares to really see.

Roads of Kiarostami is a short experimental film that poses exactly that question. Putting together the elements of photography, poetry and classical music into film, Kiarostami employs the bare image of the road to invoke the slippery nature of visuality and memory.

If willing, the viewer is lulled through beautiful poetry and random sounds of nature into a surreal, hypnotic world of simultaneous clarity and nostalgia. As Slant Magazine observes:

[Kiarostami’s work] asks how little you can present and still come away with a drama. And what you realise, watching, is that the choice to open one’s eyes and then keep them open is one of the most dramatic choices that a human being can make.

Click here to watch the trailer of Dong (2006)


Dong – directed by Jia Zhangke (2006)  

In Dong, filmmaker Jia Zhangke portrays the adventures of well-known Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong who is his friend (the title Dong references the last character in Liu’s name). Liu is travelling to the city of Fengjie to work on a project. The massive Three Gorges Dam is about to cause nearly a million people to be displaced from their homes, and Liu is going to use these people as models.

Jia follows Liu from China to Thailand as he paints shirtless demolition labour workers in Fengjie and female sex workers in Bangkok brothels. Together, the artist and filmmaker tell the silent story of everyday workers in the bustle and throes of social change and turmoil.

Dong was shot parallel to a companion piece called Still Life (2006), which tells the fictional story of two people in search of their spouses. In contrast, Dong tells a subtler version of history. But Jia explores the seductive potential of the documentary form by blurring fact with fiction; for example, by employing actors in the documentary. As Bright Lights Film observes:

[In] Jia’s fiction filmmaking, […] questions of form – the composition of the image, the placement and movement or lack of movement of the camera, shot length – have as important a role as a film’s content, and the way that content reflects a social reality.

 Michele Chan


Related Topics: Asian documentary art, film, Chinese artists, Japanese artists, Hong Kong artists, Indian artists, Iranian artists, lists

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