“Kun 13: Criticizing Ai Weiwei and Wu Haohao” is part of experimental film and documentary maker Wu Haohao’s Kun series, along with “Kun 1: Action!” (2009), “Kun 2: Criticizing Shaoguang” (2009) and “Kun 3: I Love Liang Kun” (2011). Referred to by many in Chinese indie film circles as ‘Little Godard’, Wu is an artist and experimental director from Taiyuan, in Shanxi Province, China, who describes himself as an independent filmmaker, poet, loner and lover, and who began making films in 2007, producing innovative works that play around with the documentary form.
Another highly creative and unusual offering, the film charts Wu’s visit to Ai Weiwei’s studio on a winter morning in 2010 and the strained conversation which ensued. Shot in one unedited take, the film depicts how Wu, quickly becoming uneasy and dissatisfied with Ai’s attitudes and answers to his questions, begins to respond in his own passive-aggressive manner. Their talk covers (often awkwardly) a variety of topics ranging from their opinions on modern Chinese society, the Chinese government and Communist Party, as well as art, film and more. Slowly but surely, Ai’s annoyance at Wu builds, and the mood sours as the two become increasingly critical of each other.
As with many of his other films, Wu Haohao’s “Criticizing Ai Weiwei and Wu Haohao” takes a simple premise and a very basic filmmaking form, and playfully makes it into something fascinating and unique. Though the director describes the film merely as “This is how it happens. This is how time and space piles up”, there’s a lot going on here, and it works both as an engagingly anecdotal conversation piece and as a more telling deconstruction of the persona of the artist. In this case, as suggested by the title, the deconstruction is of both the filmmaker and his subject, with Wu continuing his practice of putting himself front and centre in his work, laying himself open for criticism and using the camera as a method of exploring his own flaws and complexities. Touching on a variety of contemporary Chinese issues, the film suggests a genuine attempt by Wu to reach a greater understanding not only of Ai and his work, but also of himself, and by questioning one of China’s most important and controversial artists, he attempts to get to the heart of what drives him in order to make sense of his own work and role in society – as with the rest of the Kun series, the film can be seen as a call to arms of sorts.
Thanks to his turbulent rise to global stardom, Ai Weiwei (who was arrested and incarcerated a year after the film was made) scarcely needs an introduction. The viewer sees a different side to the artist here, and it’s to Wu’s credit that he never allows Ai to take centre stage in their conversation. The results are funny, searching and oddly tense, making “Criticizing Ai Weiwei and Wu Haohao” a vital and very enjoyable piece of experimental documentary filmmaking.
(“Kun 13: Criticizing Ai Weiwei and Wu Haohao” is screening at the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival later this month.)