Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Documentary Fortnight ’11: Tape

Li Ning has quite possibly been naked in public more often than anyone else in China. Somehow, the avant-garde dancer-performance artist has eluded the police after each of his public happenings, yet he has still paid a high price for his art as he personally documents in his post-modern docu-memoir Tape (video intro here), which screens today as part of the 2011 Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art.

Li Ning would probably be more comfortable living in the East Village than the relatively quiet, industrial city of Jinan. However, his troupe of merry prankster dancers has given him a creative outlet. Recruited mostly from his dance classes at the local university, they have been up for just about anything. Usually, Li is the only naked one though. Unfortunately, it is difficult for Li to hold the company together, as the demands of life pull them apart. Indeed, Li has his own obligations as a father and husband. By his own admission, his performance as the former has been only so-so, while largely failing at the latter.

Far from a sufficient provider, Li is in fact a financial burden on his wife. Yet, that is not even the half of it. Throughout the five years of Tape, Li implies or outright confesses secrets that violate any notion of marital trust. To give the filmmaker due credit, Li never panders for audience approval. However, the entire project is rife with psychological neediness and sundry other emotional issues.

Sharing a kinship with Bansky and other underground artists, Li unambiguously toys with the conventions of documentary filmmaking. Many sequences are clearly staged, but such is the nature of his art. At times though, his self-indulgence pushes the boundaries of taste and appropriateness, as when he simulates auto-eroticism lying next to his sleeping son. As a result of Li’s determination to hold himself up for loathing, each time the filmmaker endures a not-so infrequent beating it is rather hard to care.

At 168 minutes, Tape is a long, hard march. While one periodically gleans moments of insight into the repressive and arbitrary nature of authority in China, particularly for the creative community, the film is far more intimate in focus. Yes, the filmmaker sticks his neck out to document some abuses in his neighborhood, like a woman who is evicted and beaten by thugs simply because they seem to have a work order to do so. Yet, ultimately it is all about Li. Certainly bold, but truly grueling, Tape (also distributed by dGenerate Films, the Chinese indie specialists) screens again this afternoon (2/23) as part of the Chinese Independent Cinema section of this year’s Documentary Fortnight.