Ai Weiwei's Appeal ¥15,220,910.50: Rotterdam Review

Ai Weiwei's Appeal Rotterdam Still H
A fly-on-the-wall chronicle that might prove a challenge for those unfamiliar with Ai's running legal battles. 

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei's latest documentary lambasts the illegality and illogic in the Chinese judicial system by recounting the treatment he received after being charged for tax evasion.

Exactly three months after an Ai Weiwei documentary debuted at the IDFA in Amsterdam, another comes along and makes its bow in Rotterdam -- with the latest exploring the same period in the Chinese activist-artist's life as the former. But Ai Weiwei's Appeal ¥15,220,910.50, which received a world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Jan. 23, is a more challenging beast altogether: produced by Ai and his studio associates, the film is less a personal portrait and general celebration of his audacious deeds -- as Andreas Johnsen's IDFA entry Ai Weiwei: Fake Case is -- and more a reflection on the illegality and illogic of the Chinese state machine as it works to silence its dissidents.

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The titular number, which translates to about $2.5 million, refers to the amount of back taxes and fines Ai was asked to pay after being detained for 81 days in 2011 and getting charged for tax evasion. The clinical precision represented by the figure in the title speaks volumes about the nature of the film itself: charting Ai and his associates' two-year battle to protest the charges and his penalty, Ai Weiwei's Appeal can be technical at times and will be quite difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the details of the case or how the law works in China. But those who go in prepared will be treated to sights absurd, Kafka-esque and even comedic in a way – which is even scarier given that everything is real.

Bookended by Ai's mother, Gao Ying, visiting her son's installation at last year's Venice Biennale -- the artist, whose passport has been confiscated by the Chinese government, couldn't travel to present the piece about his confinement in 2011 -- Appeal is mostly a linear account of the confrontation between the Chinese authorities and Ai, once an officially-feted artist who has fallen out of Beijing's good books because of his criticism against the government's checkered human rights record. The beginning of the film sets the tone: as police officers arrived on Mar. 31 and April 1, 2011 to check on the identity documents of the workers at Ai's studio, the artist harangues them about the legitimacy of their actions and reads out legal clauses when the policemen fail to respond fairly.

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While the first batch of law enforcement officers arrive with at least a pretense of civility, those who raid the studio, detain employees and arrest Ai at the airport a few days later are much less refined in their modus operandi – but it's precisely this complicated mix of soft and hard power which Appeal seeks to portray. It's a practice the film's six DV-armed cinematographers illustrated vividly, from capturing the most dynamic confrontations and details in static environments which actually convey as much as the sights of physical melee: the thick layer of dust covering the table of a consultation room at the local tax bureau is revealing, for example, of the authorities' infrequency in talking with, and not at, its citizens.

But just as Ai, his wife Lu Qing and his team strategize and struggle, the artist is often heard spilling acerbic nuggets about his (and his compatriots') Sisyphian ordeal -- it's unreasonable to "expect the unreasonable to reason with you," he says. Or, on another occasion: "In China we're all suspects, it's just that we don't know what the charges are." The dashes of insight and humor shape Appeal as an illustration of a game of attrition between the artist and the authorities. As the situation drags on, it also often takes on the character of an artistic game for Ai and his team, such as when the studio gleefully produces tableau-like IOUs (complete with specially-designed stamps and signatures) as keenly as if it's a piece of conceptual art.

But Ai is conscientious enough to not let the whole thing spiral into inadvertent comedy: after having his lawyer say how his failed attempt to fight the system is "microcosmic" of China's judicial landscape, the film ends with close-ups of the four people -- Ai's assistant, accountant, driver and company manager -- who speak of the inhumane treatment they received during their long confinement. The torture and humiliation has left its mark: one of them weeps as he speaks of being overpowered by "this mighty state apparatus." Even if a final on-screen title suggests that the authorities are not enforcing the fine, the film's revelations are a sobering reminder of what can always happen when Big Brother decides to unleash his power.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), Jan. 23, 2014

Production Company: Ai Weiwei Studio

Director: Ai Weiwei

Producer: Ai Weiwei

Cinematographers: Zhao Zhao, Li Dongxu, Guo Ke, Xia Xing, Xue Yutao, Li Jie

Editors: Yuan Ze, Wang Yuye

International Sales: Ai Weiwei Studio

In Mandarin

No rating, 127 minutes