Sunday, April 12, 2015

Art of the Real ’15: Li Wen at East Lake

A cop who collects Cultural Revolution-era pre-execution photos must sound like one scary cat, but Li Wen does it with a sense of irony. To keep the peace, he will hunt a supposedly mentally disturbed troublemaker, who might just be an eccentric gadfly the powers-that-be find inconvenient. Everything about the copper and his latest case are both fake and real, making Luo Li’s meta-meta-hybrid documentary Li Wen at East Lake (trailer here) a perfect selection for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Art of the Real series of aesthetically challenging docs.

Following in the recent tradition of independent Chinese cinema, Li Luo does not exactly rush into his narrative. Instead, establishes a sense of East Lake, one of the few remaining inland lakes in the hyper-developed Wuhan metropolitan district. Legend has it, a dragon once rose from the lake to wreak fiery, purifying vengeance. A sort of Holy Fool seems to be peddling that story again, which is bad for state socialist-crony capitalist business, so Li Wen and his deputy must track down the rabble-rouser. Yet, either their quarry is surprisingly elusive or Li Wen is not feeling especially motivated, because it will take quite some time.

If ever there was a film whose sum of its parts is greater than its whole, it would be LW@EL. There are a number of boldly pointed scenes, some of which even get quite intense. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of sketchy and sluggish connective material, ostensibly holding it together, but really just watering down the overall cinematic experience.

Nevertheless, when it is on, it scores impressive points. This is especially true when Li Wen argues with a gender and sexuality identity-studies grad student—a sequence that is as funny as anything you will see in a major studio release this year. Yet, there is also a very serious subtext critiquing the Communist government and state media’s hostility towards LGBT citizens. Likewise, Li Wen’s rather frank discussions regarding the Party and the Cultural Revolution (which officially never happened) are far from flattering. In fact, we eventually learn he was once a modernist artist, but now Li Wen paints motel-worthy landscapes as brown-nosing offerings for his uncultured superiors.

Piling on the meta-ness, Li Wen the copper-painter is played by Li Wen the real life painter and occasional actor, previously seen as the title character in Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell. As his namesake, he shows considerable range, in the unlikeliest of ways. He shows off some razor sharp comedic timing, while also conveying profoundly sad awareness of current injustices and the weight of historical tragedies.

There are flashes of brilliance from Li Luo and his mostly unprofessional (or perhaps semi-professional) cast throughout LW@EL, but he forces viewers to really work for them. Committed China watchers will find it worth the effort, but the less cerebral and adventurous the viewer, the slimmer the returns. Recommended for a narrow, confidently self-selected audience, Li Wen at East Lake screens this Wednesday (4/15) at the Francesca Beale Theater, as part of this year’s Art of the Real.