Chimeras: Film Review

Thought-provoking doc works for both art fans and those more interested in cultural geopolitics.

Mika Mattila follows two Chinese artists whose work critiques China's embrace of the West.

THE HAMPTONS, NEW YORK — A doc about culture change in China that doesn't stop at lamenting vanishing folkways or cluck-clucking at rampant consumerism, Mika Mattila's Chimeras looks at the struggle between Eastern and Western mindsets through the work and lives of two celebrated artists. Tightly focused but appealing to both art lovers and those seeking insight into an evolving China, the picture should satisfy at festivals and in niche theatrical engagements.

The artists in question are a young, timid-seeming photographer, Liu Gang, and Wang Guangyi, the Pop-leaning art star who emerged in the Eighties with the North Art Group. (We're told that 2008 auctions of his work reaped around $23 million.) Mattila shadows both men, avoiding talking-head interviews in favor of narration accompanying well photographed scenes of them at work -- Liu with his camera, looking lonely amid the pastiche architecture of China's faux-European theme parks -- or in social settings -- like the gathering of North Art Group vets where Wang silences a room by declaring that a colleague's work is meritless, even destructive to Chinese identity.

The nation's soul is the central theme here. Wang says he has been brainwashed many times in his life -- not just by Mao's Cultural Revolution, but by the West's art history, a system of aesthetics that had no room for traditional Asian art. Liu has based whole series on deconstructions of the luxury being hawked to newly wealthy Chinese: His photos of crinkled-up newspaper advertisements turn glossy fantasies into soulless, degraded ephemera.

Mattila spends enough personal time with both artists to find ironies in the contrast between how each man lives and the philosophical underpinnings of his work. But he doesn't harp on these observations, and this thoughtful, serious film instead positions them as more clues about a nation struggling to understand itself while being forced to assert its place in a world long dominated by Western Civilization.

Production Company: Navy Blue Bird

Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography: Mika Mattila

Producer: Markku Niska

Editors: Mika Mattila, Mikko Sippola

No rating, 85 minutes