'Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Santiago Porter
This art-themed doc is literally explosive.

Kevin Macdonald's documentary chronicles the life and career of the Chinese conceptual artist famous for his work with gunpowder and fireworks.

Documentaries about artists are often static affairs, filled with lingering shots of canvases while a narrator drones on. Not so with Kevin Macdonald's (The Last King of Scotland) film about Cai Guo-Quing, the Chinese conceptual artist whose accomplishments include creating the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Famed for his work with gunpowder and fireworks, the subject makes for a film that is literally explosive. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is receiving its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. 

The title of the film--whose producers include Bennett Miller, Wendi Murdoch and Fisher Stevens--refers to one of the artist's most daring and ambitious creations, a fiery "ladder into the clouds," as he puts it, rising rung-by-rung 1,650 feet into the sky above his hometown of Quanzhou, China. Finally accomplished last year, the pyrotechnic marvel was the result of decades of effort, including previous unsuccessful attempts in Bath, Shanghai and Los Angeles.

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Sky Ladder chronicles his life and career in illuminating fashion, beginning with his troubled childhood. Nine years old at the start of Mao's Cultural Revolution, he had an intellectual father who would buy books instead of putting food on the table, and an illiterate mother. When the period of repression ended, Cai began his artistic career, which included acting stints (he played a villain in a film called The Spring and Fall of a Small Town, from which an amusing clip is shown).

Although his art encompasses various media, it's Cai's work with gunpowder and fireworks that has given him the most fame.

"Playing with gunpowder set me free," he comments. Among the celebrated artworks he engineered that are showcased in the film are "Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters" and the opening ceremony of the 2014 APEC meeting in Beijing, for which he was forced to compromise his vision by the Chinese government.

"I put myself in a difficult position," Cai admits, although he takes pains to defend his work for the country in which he was born.

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The 2015 presentation of "Sky Ladder" is the subject of the final section, and it's clearly a labor of love for the artist, who dedicates it to his 100-year-old, bedridden grandmother. The arduous, often frustrating process is depicted—"Making 'Sky Ladder' is just like burning money," his wife complains—but it pays off in a spectacular event. Cai's grandmother watches it unfold via an iPad, after which the artist breathlessly asks her, "Isn't your grandson awesome?" It's a beautiful, touching moment that says more about the artistic urge than any scholarly tome ever could.   

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)

Production: Explosion Art, Insurgent Docs

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Producers: Wendi Murdoch, Hugo Shong, Fisher Stevens

Executive producer: Bennett Miller

Directors of photography: Robert Yeoman, Florian Zinke

Editors: Nick Emerson, Adam Biskupski

World Sales: Cinetic Media

Not rated, 76 min.

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