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China’s film market will soon be getting a welcome dash of diversity as Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang opens theatrically in the country on Sept. 22.
The critically lauded documentary, which world premiered at Sundance in 2016, traces the career of Cai Guo-Qiang, the internationally acclaimed China-born artist famous for his mystical use of fireworks.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) and produced by Wendi Deng, Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and Fisher Stevens (Before the Flood), the film was snapped up by Netflix after its premiere and has been available on the platform since last fall.
Now, it’s finally set to unfurl in Cai’s homeland (where Netflix is not available and blocked), with a nationwide limited release courtesy of local distributors Shanghai Minxin and Xi’an E Xi E Entertainment — an uncommonly wide debut for a prestige non-fiction title in China.
A work three years in the making, Sky Ladder follows Cai’s rise from childhood deprivations during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to his early encounters with art, later studies overseas and eventual discovery of the medium — ephemeral but metaphorically resonant pyrotechnics — which would make him an art-world star. In the present day sequences that interlace the film, Macdonald doggedly tracks Cai as his globe-spanning practice takes him back and forth from a New York studio to remote parts of China and many points in between. As many critics have opined, the footage of Cai’s vast art works — such as his fireworks display during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony — appear almost tailor-made for the big screen.
Sky Ladder joins a short but significant list of documentaries that have found a foothold recently in Chinese cinemas. Born in China, a nature documentary co-produced by Disney and Shanghai Media Group, earned just shy of $10 million upon its release late last year. And Twenty-Two, a film about the surviving Chinese women who experienced the Japanese Imperial Army’s practice of forced sex slavery during World War II, became even more of a phenomenon, earning $24.5 million in August.
Both of those titles, on top of being well-made films, were a natural fit with reigning ideology — China’s grandeur and its historical grievances being two of Beijing’s pet topics — but Sky Ladder, although a celebration of one of the nation’s great artists, provides a more multi-dimensional portrait, dedicating considerable screen time to the commercial and political pressures Cai is forced to grapple with as both a celebrity artist and native son of China. As such, the theatrical reception should be particularly interesting to gauge.
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