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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' interesting look at Chinese artist, protester

Special Photo Chinese artist and political protester, Ai Weiwei is the subject of the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."

Special Photo Chinese artist and political protester, Ai Weiwei is the subject of the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY

(R)

2 and 1/2 stars out of 4

Among all of the countries in the world, China is by far at the top of the list when it comes to not taking any kind of guff from its citizens. The government spends the bulk of its time keeping tabs on political dissidents, but in close second place and gaining fast are its artists, and Ai Weiwei (pronounced eye way-way) is both.

Unlike most others like him in one or the other boats, Ai is quite visible, purposefully provocative and indignant and he likes it that way. If you have your finger on the pulse of global politics or the international art scene (or blogs for either), you already know of him and just how much of a controversy magnet Ai's become.

Although a fixture on multiple creative scenes for decades, Ai didn't become a really huge thorn in the government's side until the summer of 2007 -- about a year before the Beijing Olympic Games. Remember the National Stadium aka "the Bird's Nest"? Ai had a lot to do with its design. Yet, even before construction was complete, he distanced himself from it with prejudice while also slamming the IOC and opening ceremony choreographers Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou (also Ai's fellow student in film school). The government was quite nonplussed but didn't want to lend Ai's position any undue negative publicity while the world was about to start watching the Games. For the Chinese, image isn't everything: It's the only thing.

A man of considerable girth, gusto and an even larger ego, Ai totally misread China's mild public reaction to his protests and he unwisely decided to push the envelope even further and, again, mostly because of his standing with the world's creative types, the government laid low.

Next up from Ai was a triple whammy of missteps -- only one of which could be considered an actual crime -- and the government decided they'd had enough. Even with the escalating exposure making him increasingly more metaphorically bulletproof, Ai had finally crossed the line and the authorities took decisive action.

Already in China on assignment for NPR and PBS, director Alyson Klayman met Ai not long after the Olympics wrapped and almost immediately became his permanent shadow. Whether she viewed him as a kindred spirit or a possible future TV documentary subject is sketchy, but what is quite clear is Ai's unquenchable thirst for fawning attention and the limelight.

Whatever Ai's motives for the film might be are completely irrelevant. He had the full attention of a Western journalist in the employ of the world's most respected news organization that was largely untouchable by the Chinese government. Coupled with his treasure trove of still photos and underground videos going back decades, Ai had to be reasonably confident Klayman's finished product would be unfiltered if not also highly complimentary and he was right.

Breaking the cardinal documentarian rule throughout, Klayman is inordinately biased regarding her subject and it negatively taints the movie. This doesn't necessarily mean "Never Sorry" is a bad or unentertaining film per se. Michael Moore does the same thing with blinding regularity and he's the most successful documentarian of all-time. Klayman's film is highly informative and manages to put a semi-bright spotlight on China's draconian/Gestapo-like practices in a way no one else has yet done.

One would have to be living under a rock not to be already aware that China plays for keeps when it comes to having the last word and nothing short of a global boycott of their goods and services would have even a snowball's chance of pushing them toward reform of any kind. This government simply doesn't like being told what to do or how to behave by anybody: internally, externally or otherwise. The last few scenes of Ai in the movie make this unwavering and utterly intractable position more than crystal clear and Ai might just be a little more than sorry. (IFC)