“Roman Holiday” - William Wyler (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953) was the Hollywood romantic comedy that introduced Audrey Hepburn in a leading role and immediately established her as a star – she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also received an Oscar for Best Story, which was written by Dalton Trumbo, although because of Hollywood’s disgraceful blacklisting period of the 1950s, Trumbo was not fully credited for his work until 2011. 

Hepburn’s co-star, Gregory Peck, was the film’s box-office big name at the time, and Peck was thought to have been amazingly humble for allowing Hepburn to promoted to equal billing. But looking at the film today, I would say that this is entirely Hepburn’s film. Peck here is little more than the male accessory to Hepburn that George Peppard was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).             

The story of Roman Holiday concerns a crown princess from an unnamed European country on a visit to Rome who manages to escape the bureaucratic rigors of her regal life by sneaking out on the town for a day.  She wants, for once, to have fun and engage with ordinary life in Rome.  But she has more than just a little fun – during that 24-hour period, she has a romantic encounter with an American expatriate that she meets.

It seems to me that there are two primary themes to the film. One concerns the roles and responsibilities that are placed on us all – even the royalty – and how they can imprison people, especially women.  The other theme is a more playful one and concerns the willful deceptions and misperceptions that can enable us to escape those roles (for awhile, anyway).  Incidentally, deception would also play a major role in a later Hepburn film, Charade (1963).

The story goes through four sections that feature the progressive unraveling and “re-raveling” of those roles.

1.  Princess Ann Arrives in Rome
In the first section the youthful and glamorous Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) arrives in Rome with her royal retinue and attends to a tightly-packed succession of official functions. Fed up with the rigamarole, she finally throws a tantrum and is given a sedative by the royal physician to quiet her down. After the attendants leave her room, the now-sleepy princess sneaks out of the embassy to see what real life in Rome is like. Her sneaking out on the town is the first act of deception and/or misperception – let’s call it Deception #1.

2.  Ann Meets a Stranger
We are introduced to an American expatriate newspaperman, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who is perpetually borrowing money from and playing poker with fellow American pals in Rome. Departing from a poker party, he encounters Ann now overcome by the sedative and sleeping on a park bench. Bradley simply assumes that the girl is a drunk, and possibly a trollop. This is another misperception that persists for the rest of the evening (Deception #2). Feeling responsible for leaving a vulnerable woman in such a condition, Bradley takes the girl back to his apartment to sober up. He soon finds himself amused that such a presumably dissolute woman should act as if she is accustomed to being served by anyone around her.

3.  A Day on the Town
The next morning Bradley wakes up and realizes he has overslept a scheduled assignment – to attend a royal press conference held for Princess Ann. He rushes off to his news office and pretends to his boss, the English-language paper’s editor, to have attended the press conference (Deception #3), but his lie is soon exposed. Then when Bradley sees a photograph of the princess, he suddenly realizes that the sleeping girl back in his apartment is actually Princess Ann. So he sees a chance to seize an opportunity, and he gets back in graces with his boss by promising to secure an exclusive interview with the princess for the paper.

Bradley gets back to his apartment just as Ann is leaving.  She wants to walk around town on her own, so Bradley secretly follows his precious find in the background.  Wanting to break away from her social confines, Ann walks into a hair salon and has her long hair shorn off so that she can have a “cool” new perm.  We could call this Deception #4, because Ann now looks rather different and is less recognizable to people. 

Bradley, though, has been following her and is not thrown off track. He now “accidentally” runs into Ann, and they go off to a café and chat, where Bradley presents himself, not as a potentially off-putting newshound, but instead as a successful businessman (Deception  #5). Then Bradley’s American photographer pal, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), shows up to join them. Irving seems to recognize the princess, and Bradley, wanting to maintain the relative anonymity of their socializing, gives him nudges and kicks in order that he not spill the beans.  This all-too-obvious winking and nudging between the two friends continues throughout the story and is one of the more hilarious elements of the film.  Eventually Bradley convinces Irving that with candid pictures taken, their exclusive story about the princess will make a financial killing for both of them.

So off they all go about Rome, with Irving surreptitiously taking pictures of Ann with his micro-camera inside his cigarette lighter. They visit famous monuments, idle in the local street bazaars, and cruise through the city on a motor scooter. Along the way, Ann’s spontaneous delight in all these activities gradually charm Bradley and divert him from his goal of making a journalistic  killing.  The two of them are falling in love.

In the evening the three of them head off to a river boat where Ann would like to go dancing.  On the dance-boat she runs into her coiffeur, who earlier had sported a mustache but is now clean-shaven.  Apparently he had earlier had a mustache at the hair salon in order appear more of an artiste (Deception #6). 

Their festivities proceed splendidly on the boat until a gang of secret service “black hat” (literally!) agents from Ann’s home country show up searching for the missing princess and, recognizing her, attempt her capture. A wild brawl breaks out, during which Bradley and Ann manage to escape by jumping into the river and swimming to safety. Still soaking wet when ashore, they embrace and share a kiss.

4.  Return to “Normalcy”
The next day back in Joe Bradley’s apartment, Ann and Joe look at each other uneasily.  Joe says, “There’s something I want to tell you.”  But Ann only responds with, “No, please, nothing”.  Ann is responding to the call of duty and ready to resume her royal responsibilities.  They exchange one final kiss, and then Ann is swallowed back up in her world of officialdom.  At a royal press conference the next day, the two of them see each other in their proper roles, and now all the previous misperceptions are cancelled.  They can only stare at each other wistfully from afar in the closing shots.
Roman Holiday was served up by producer-director William Wyler as a rich Italian confection for the American viewing public. The film was shot entirely in studios and locations in Rome and seems to feature a famous monument or ancient site in the background of almost every outdoor shot. Oddly, although Wyler was a long-standing veteran who was nominated for more Best Director Oscars than anyone else, this film does has some technical oddities. One peculiarity is the surprising number of on-axis jump cuts (action cuts with only minimal changes in perspective) throughout the film, which jar the viewer throughout.  Some of these appear to be shots that were stuck on at the ends of moving-camera shots in order to extend the duration of the overall shot. There is also a noticeable discontinuity in the background of one sequence between Hepburn and Peck, when an action cut reveals distinctly different times on a building clock in the background.

But there are some nice touches, too.  I liked the none-too-subtle signals Joe was trying to send to Irving when they were interacting with the princess.  Another delightful scheme was in Joe’s apartment when he awkwardly tries to lift the sleeping Ann and deposit her in another bed.  He tries to do this twice and makes a mess of things on both occasions – awkward on Joe’s part, but artful on Wyler’s.

And the presentation of Audrey Hepburn is superb. Wyler managed to capture the inimitable charm that was peculiar to Hepburn.  Hepburn, herself, was somewhat mystified why people found her so attractive – she thought she was too skinny and that her feet were too big and her nose was not pretty. But you had to see her in action, her spontaneous delight in little things, in order to appreciate her magic. Wyler did manage to capture that particular Hepburn magnetism, and that ultimately was his most important contribution.

On the other hand, I thought Gregory Peck was not quite right for the role of Joe Bradley. He is too stiff, and he doesn’t project the kind of reflective character that the Bradley role would have seemed to demand. We need a better window on the inner turmoil that Joe Bradley must have experienced in the story.
 
Overall, I would say that Roman Holiday’s inner theme of deception/misperception is an intriguing angle.  We suspect that the deceptions here are not so deceitful as they might appear to the others.  After all, though they cloud an external truth, they help uncover something more real and authentic about the characters engaged in them.  Sometimes a little deception is necessary in order to get at the things that count and have meaning.  The key thing is that I should only tell you what I want you to know about myself in the present context. And that’s an important positive to take away from this film.

Of course, the film’s outer theme is about a romantic relationship that never took flight. It was rumored, by the way, that Peck and Hepburn had their own offscreen amorous relationship during the shooting. However, since Peck was a married man with children, they apparently mutually agreed to terminate the affair. In any case, what does it all amount to? Was it just a one-day flirtation, a momentary fantasy that merely created a nice memory? Perhaps. But the story here uncovers the kind of crucial-to-life opportunity that rarely comes along – true love. In this film’s case, that opportunity was abandoned in favor of attendance to mundane responsibilities. That crucial opportunity should not have been lost.
★★★

“Drunken Angel” - Akira Kurosawa (1948)


In the aftermath of a devastating world war that ripped apart the defeated and foreign-occupied country [1], Japanese culture reflected new social soul searching.  This was the gloomy atmosphere in which a number of postwar Japanese films, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948) were set.  Drunken Angel, considered to be Kurosawa’s breakthrough film that demonstrated his full cinematic mastery, concerns a somewhat down-and-out doctor struggling to make a difference in a crime-ridden Tokyo neighborhood.  Although we may consider it be a film noir, the film carries a more positive metaphorical message than is typical of the noirish filmography.

The film stars two actors who were to become Kurosawa favorites, Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune, the latter a relative newcomer to the Japanese cinema.  Both Shimura and Mifune had  striking screen personae that had put personal stamps on the films in which they appeared.  But Drunken Angel is not just a showcase for these principals; it features an overall mise-en-scene mood that integrates all the performances into an expressionistic cinematic environment.  In fact there are fascinatingly nightmarish elements to the presentation that I will further below.

The main characters in this story are
  • Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), the alcoholic doctor trying to eradicate tuberculosis (TB) in the lower-class area of his clinic.
  • Matsunaga (Toshirô Mifune), a local gangster who dominates the neighborhood and its shopkeepers
  • Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto), a gangster recently released from prison  
  • Nanae (Michiyo Kogure), a glamorous “woman of easy virtue”, who frequents the “No. 1" nightclub in the area.
  • Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), the nurse who assists Dr. Sanada at his clinic.
  • Gin (Noriko Sengoku), a shop girl who likes Matsunaga
Unlike Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night, where the focus is entirely on the fate and struggling spirits of the women, the female characters in Drunken Angel are essentially weak witnesses and victims of the existing cultural milieu.  The focus here instead is on the three principal men and what they represent.

The story of Drunken Angel passes through three narrative phases.

1.  Sanada and Matsunaga
The opening shot shows a cesspool pond next to a local market, an image that will become a recurring visual motif for the general corruption, decay, and irresponsibility, that is undermining society. Then we are shown the gruff and outspoken doctor, Sanada, who is treating the young gangster. Matsunaga for a gunshot wound in his clinic. Sanada warns the young ruffian that he is probably suffering from something worse – tuberculosis and that his condition is dire unless he changes his ways. From the outset Sanada’s scornful contempt for Matsunaga’s lifestyle makes the gangster lose his temper, and Matsunaga throttles Sanada with his fists.  This bashing of Sanada will be repeated on two more occasions in this section of the film and will serve as another motif for Sanada’s uncomfortable standing in his world.

This first narrative portion of the film, which lasts more than 40 minutes of the 95-minute film, concerns the combative but symbiotic relationship between Sanada and Matsunaga and the latter’s degenerating health condition.  Since the camera focalization is exclusively on one of those two characters, we assume that the entire story will unfold as a back-and-forth coverage of just those two principals.

The characters of both Sanada and Matsunaga, though exaggerated in some ways, display some internal complexity.  Dr. Sanada is addicted to alcohol and compulsively drinks his own grain alcohol that is supposed to be used for his practice.  This, of course, causes him to lose “face” in the eyes of the local population, which is a cardinal horror to the Japanese temper and thus the quintessential weakness. But Sanada’s awareness of his weaknesses makes him sympathetic when he sees his own flaws reflected in others, like Matsunaga.  So he tries to help them.  Sanada recognizes the inherent conflicts in his own career when he comments to nurse Miyo:

“It’s silly to be a doctor, anyway.  Doctors need people who are ill, and yet they try to cure them.”
But he persists nonetheless.

Matsunaga, for his part, shows himself to be sufficiently reflective to be able to recognize rational recommendations from Sanada.  But his devotion to his maintaining face in the local environment is ruinous, and this is a key theme of the film.

Towards the end of this section, we learn that Sanada’s assistant, Miyo, used to be the mistress of another gangster, Okada, who is about to be released from prison after serving about four years.

2.  Okada Takes Over
In the second section of the film, Okada, now out of prison, shows up to reclaim the neighborhood that he once dominated.  Okada went to prison when the society was dominated by the quasi-fascist military elite, and he represents the old corrupt way of doing things – exactly that which Sanada combats.  So now there are three poles to the story:
  1. Sanada on one end, representing the adherence to new principles and discipline,
  2. Okada on the other end, representing the old norms that solely respect force and demand obedience and self-sacrifice, and
  3. Matsunaga in the middle, who is pulled in opposing directions.
Gradually Okada resumes his dominance and forces Matsunaga to submit, even snaring Matsunaga’s woman in the process.  Meanwhile Matsunaga’s health is getting worse, and he is now coughing blood. While overlooking the village cesspool, Sanada warns him that Matsunaga’s recovery will depend on him getting clean – not only from the physical filth but also from the filthy people (Okada and his ilk) surrounding him.

3.  The Settling of Accounts
Okada eventually learns that his old mistress, Miyo, is now with Sanada, and goes to Sanada’s clinic to reclaim her.  But Sanada tells him that times have changed since he went to prison.  There are now principles and rights – you can’t just grab women like the old days.  At that moment Matsunaga, still encumbered by his belief in loyalty to the old hierarchy, comes out of his sickbed in the clinic to beg Okada for mercy.
Okada and his thugs eventually leave the clinic empty-handed, but they say they will be back for Miyo. Sanada then leaves to inform the officials of Okada’s gangsterism, but before leaving warns Miyo not to go to Okada and pay obeisance - 
“The Japanese like to punish themselves with petty sacrifices.”
Matsunaga, though now very ill, then also leaves in order to go ask the big gangster Yakuza boss for mercy for Miyo.  He still wants to save his own face in front of the organized crime syndicate.  But when he arrives at the boss’s site, he overhears a conversation indicating that he will sacrificed in an upcoming power move: they know Matsunaga is dying of TB and they regard him now as a piece of meat. The disillusioned Matsunaga leaves and walks through the market, where he is stung to discover that he is no longer respected by the shopkeepers because of his loss of status. There is a brief scene at a local café, where the shopgirl, Gin, who secretly likes Matsunaga, begs him to run away to the countryside with her. But Matsunaga, determined to do something to stop Okada from grabbing Miyo, goes to Okada’s apartment and confronts him. There is an extended, almost surreal, knife fight between the two that ends up with the two of them covered in sloppy paint and presumably dead.

At the close of the film, Sanada dismisses the likes of Matsunaga who cannot change their ways, and celebrates the recovery from TB of the young schoolgirl patient who had diligently followed the doctor’s prescriptions.  
Drunken Angels has a number of memorable cinematic touches that add to its gloss.  There is an eerie dream sequence in which Matsunaga sees himself encountering his own coffin.  There is also the dramatic fight scene between Okada and Matsunaga that features startlingly nightmarish camera compositions and ends in the two antagonists getting covered in fresh paint that had been on the floor of Okada’s apartment corridor.  Throughout the film there are evocative multiple-character camera compositions featuring principals in the foreground and background.  This atmosphere is enhanced by the uneven dramatic lighting of the interiors, which are presented as lit by sunlight coming in through shutters and blinds.

Many of these compositions have such a drastic expressionistic feeling that they evoke the sense of Manga comics, which were becoming very popular in Japan at that time.  This makes Toshiro Mifune’s wildly exaggerated gestures and characteristic overacting more palatable than usual.  Even Takashi Shimura, my favorite Kurosawa actor, is over the top on many occasions, but it all fits into the comic-book imagery of the film.

Nevertheless, Drunken Angel is not a comic book story.  When comparing it again to Women of the Night, we can say that the differences between the two films encompass more than just the contrasting focuses on women in one and men in the other.  In Women of the Night the narrative perspective is that of the individual, the respective women followed in the film.  This is characteristic of film noir, where the focus is on the lost individual in an occluded environment with a dark horizon and unknown menaces.  Although we could say that Drunken Angel has a broadly film-noir setting, there is also a larger perspective to the film that goes beyond the lost individual.  As mentioned above, Doctor Sanada metaphorically represents a flawed individual adhering to larger humanistic principles that transcend his specific circumstances. Note that this is not shown as merely slavish imitation and adoption of Western modernism.  Sanada and Miyo are shown wearing traditional Japanese clothing, while the corrupt and unprincipled gangsters, are attired in modern American-influenced garb.

Matsunaga is the weak, wavering character unable to overcome his blind loyalty to his superiors and his concern with saving face. In the end, though, his climactic attack on Okada is a turning away from that doomed direction and does appear to have the effect of saving Miyo from falling back into Okada’s dark cauldron of oppression.  A typical film noir would have ended there; but in this case Sanada’s humble prescriptions are presented as the way forward in the fight against corruption and disease.
★★★

Notes:
1.    Including some three million war deaths, see “World War II Casualties”, Wikipedia.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” - Alison Klayman (2012)


The prospects of seeing a film about Ai Weiwei, the well-known Chinese contemporary artist, didn’t appeal to me at first.  The persona he projects in the public space seemed to me somewhat that of a braggadocio devoted to the cultivation of his own image.  But I went ahead anyway and saw Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and I came out with a much altered perspective on the man.  The film doesn’t cover all the interesting cultural issues surrounding Ai (indeed, what single film could?), but it does manage to give a picture of a very human person, one with considerably more depth and humanity than first appearances (to me) would suggest.

Actually Ai Weiwei is much more famous in the West than he is in China, where his public activities and artwork are generally suppressed by the government.  This fame in the West is more due to his public image and sociopolitical profile with respect to human rights in China than it is to his art works.  So a filmmaker might focus on one of several dimensions: human rights in China, the Chinese cultural scene, or Ai’s public swaggering.  Klayman’s film does touch on these things, but what ultimately comes out from watching the film is the down-to-earth and genuine personality of Ai, himself.

As the film proceeds, it seems to meander about without any real narrative purpose.  It jumps around in its time coverage, eventually managing to give the viewer some idea of Ai’s personal development and the stormy circumstances in which it took place.  Ai’s father was the distinguished poet, Ai Qing, who was denounced and persecuted by Mao’s government during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s (Ai Weiwei was born in 1957). The family was exiled to labor camps in Heilongjiang and Xinjiang until Weiwei was 16. Eventually Weiwei went to study animation at the Beijing Film Academy, and then on to live in New York City, where he made a living as a street artist and doing odd jobs from 1981 to 1993.  During this period of personal exile from the Chinese scene, Ai only heard and saw the news of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.  But that event undoubtedly affected him, and it seems to be associated with what Ai represents to the outside world (as I will discuss below).


In 1993 Ai Weiwei returned to China to attend to his ailing father, and there he began to establish himself in the Chinese art scene. As is characteristic of modern art, Ai’s artworks were more on the conceptual than the aesthetic side. In this milieu, artistic success often depends on the degree to which the artist can sell him- or herself to the critical audience. A notable early example was Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) [1], a performance piece in which the artist is shown expressionlessly smashing a 2,000-year-old archeological relic on the floor in order, presumably, to depict his flippant attitude towards cultural items we are expected to treasure. This was the image that Ai came to project: a man eager to “flip the bird” at everything.  In fact Ai is famous for his images showing his own middle finger in the foreground cast outward towards landscapes reflecting cultural and political power, such as Tiananmen Square (the iconic “center” of the Chinese Communist authority) and the Eiffel Tower.

This is the aspect of Ai that put me off somewhat, but there are other aspects of Ai that puts off many of my Chinese associates.  For me, the projection of an “I don’t care – screw everything” attitude was hardly something that would engage my sympathies.  My Chinese friends, however, have a different objection to Ai Weiwei.  They see him as merely a tool for Western propagandists who want to interfere with Chinese society and impose their own narrow conception of what they call “human rights”.  Similarly, these same people see the student activists during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as tools of foreign agents who were out to humiliate China.  As proof of this, they point out that a number of the student activists of that time made it out of China to safe havens in the West (and, presumably, thereby avoided the harsh punishments that they deserved for asserting their rights to self-expression).  Those student activists, my friends say, pushed the government too far, until they had no choice but to crack down hard on such wanton, foreign-induced civil disobedience.  They also say that the reports of large-scale casualties were exaggerated by the Western press.  But there are other reports that tell an entirely different tale of repression [2,3,4,5,6].  And a personal (and apolitical) friend of mine who was there that evening of May 35th and visited nearby hospitals told me that it wouldn’t surprise him if there were more than a thousand deaths from the carnage.

Although Klayman’s film touches on the Tiananmen Square massacre, it doesn’t dwell on it, since it’s focus is on Ai’s activities, not just on politics. What the film does cover is Ai’s activities in connection with the Sichuan (Szechwan) earthquake of 2008. That devastating event, measuring 8.0 Ms, left 70,000 dead and some 4.8 million people homeless. Included among the dead were more than 5,000 children who perished due to the shoddy construction of the schools they were in.  Notably, a number of social critics complained at the time that local government corruption had led to the issuing of building permits that allowed faulty construction practices.  The local Sichuan authorities unsurprisingly tried to suppress any investigations into what had happened there, so Ai and a few dozen volunteers set out to the provincial city of Chengdu to carry out their studies and document all the schoolchildren who had perished in the tragedy.

The local authorities didn’t like Ai’s prowling around, and had him severely beaten in his Chengdu hotel  room, giving Ai a cerebral hemorrhage.  But Ai and his associates, equipped with cell-phones and cameras, recorded much of what was going on.  In these scenes Ai does not come across as a belligerent malcontent, but merely as a diligent citizen investigator trying to operate within the strictures of the law. Klayman simply shows Ai’s footage, which clearly reveals the contrast between citizens trying to operate lawfully and the face of local, extractive authorities who can use arbitrary coercion to suppress anything that gets in their way.


In fact this gets us to what Ai Weiwei’s art is all about.  As I mentioned, we learn very little in this film about the actual artistic production of Ai’s work. He is primarily a conceptual artist and operates an artistic studio (or art “factory”), known as “258 Fake”, in which his assistants actually execute Ai’s conceptual designs. We do get to see images of a few items, including Ai’s famous room-sized presentation of 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern gallery. But an overall feel of Ai’s aesthetic genius doesn’t come through. Instead the film presents the artist as social activist – but not an activist concerned with specific political injustices. Instead Ai seems to be concerned with something more fundamental in Chinese society.

The Chinese seem used to living in a perpetual surveillance society.  Even without US NSA-style electronic surveillance, Chinese social life is always under watch.  In almost every area or neighborhood, it seems, there is someone who is taking note of anything unusual happening and reporting it to the authorities. This is apparently assumed to be necessary in order to maintain social order, an obsessive concern that dates back at least as far as the 19th century Taiping Rebellion [7]. Ai Weiwei seems to be expressing in his artistic gestures that he is willing to operate under these rather restrictive conditions, but he wants the information flow to move in all directions: not only from (a) the bottom up (information about the people), but also (b) from the top down (information about what the government is doing) and (c) across the bottom (information from people to people).
But the Chinese authorities only want information to flow one way: up from the people (via surveillance) to the government. What the elitist government does and how it makes decisions is to be kept secret [8]. So Ai Weiwei carries his mobile phone around and records everything that happens, which he then tries to share with others via social networking.  The Chinese government has tried to suppress this by shutting down his blog in 2009, so now Ai communicates to the people via Twitter, which is also banned in China but is followed anyway by the many people who have access to virtual private networks. And so when the government decided to demolish his newly built art studio in 2010, the government placed Ai under house arrest so that he couldn’t stage a public party at the studio prior to the demolition.  But Ai’s supporters went and held their party anyway.

Freedom of expression is, of course, a common concern among public artists, but it stands supreme with Ai Weiwei. Indeed freedom of speech (including all forms or expression) is one of the basic human rights that represents one of the pillars of successful societies. I have argued before that in fact successful societies need to guarantee four interdependent pillars of their social structure in order to ensure long-term success [9].  For brevity, I refer to these four pillars by the term, “RMDL”:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech and the freedom to watch and listen (essentially freedom of assembly). These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience.
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open exchange of goods across society.  This includes the necessity of ensuring sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange of goods and services.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Of the four RMDL elements, the Chinese society has in the past 35 years managed to establish M, but R, D, and L are still missing.  This is what imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the signers of the Charter 08 memorandum were trying to attend to.  Ai Weiwei expresses strong support for Liu Xiaobo, and by implication R, D, and L, but his primary concern is with freedom of speech entailed by R. On this issue he is steadfast, as is reflected by these comments from an interview published elsewhere [10]:
“You know, not my father’s generation, not my generation, not even my son’s generation will see voting. . . So nobody can exercise their rights in public, [have] public opinions, or give anything related to public expression. That indicates several things: first you [the Party] are not legitimate, you can never be confident… So that puts you on a very fragile base. This is a fundamental philosophical problem. China has an identity crisis and is not intending to fix it.”
There are advocates of “Asian values”, in the fashion of Lee Kuan Yew’s past governing style in Singapore, who think that M is all that is needed – just forget about the messiness of R, D, and L.  According to this view, an educated elite can make all the right decisions for everyone and avoid the evils of populism.  This perspective also seems to motivate the thinking of the anti-democratic middle class in Thailand and even to some extent some right-wing commentators in the US.  But a successful society needs all four RMDL elements, as the US should have learned when it tried to impose D in Afghanistan and Iraq without consideration of the other underpinnings.

Klayman’s film, however, doesn’t concentrate much on these larger issues, nor does it provide much background.  Instead it shows Ai in his studio, with dozens of pet cats wandering around the premises.  Ai comes across as a more modest person than his public projection.  When he is asked whether his wife objects to the fact that he had a young child from an extra-marital affair, his response seems genuine and somewhat self-effacing. Although the film lacks narrative direction, it does arrive at a closure with Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment in April 2011, when he was held for 81 days and his passport was confiscated.  He was charged with various infringements, including tax evasion, and pornography.  Upon his release, Ai is seen reluctant to speak to reporters and appears to be silenced.  But that silencing was shown to be only temporary – at least on that occasion.

Klayman’s film, by the way, is well mounted and is immeasurably enhanced by Ilan Isakov’s moody background music.  This is an occasion when the music elevates the presentation to a contemplative level entirely appropriate for the complex subject matter at hand.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, (1995).
  2. Andrew Jacobs, “Tiananmen Square Anniversary Prompts Campaign of Silence”, The New York Times, May 27, 2014.
  3. Jonathon Mirsky, “Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were”, The New York Review of Books, May 20, 2014.
  4. Ian Johnson, “The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square”, The New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014.
  5. Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley, “Tales of Army Discord Show Tiananmen Square in a New Light”, New York Times, June 2, 2014.
  6. Liao Yiwu, “The Tanks and the People”, The New York Review of Books, June 3, 2014.
  7. Perhaps fear of another devastating cult-inspired bottom-up insurrection is what underlies the government’s suppression, detainment, and alleged organ-harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners.  Without freedom of expression and inquiry, it is difficult to determine the reality of what is happening in this connection.  See  "Persecution of Falun Gong", Wikipedia, and "Kilgour-Matas report", Wikipedia
  8. Perry Link, "China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No", The New York Review of Books, March 31, 2014.
  9. RMDL, in “‘Head Wind’ - Mohammad Rasoulof (2008)”, The Film Sufi, January 29, 2013.
  10. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, “Art?”, Aeon Magazine, May 2, 2014.