Notably paradoxical, Andreas Johnsen’s documentary Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case manages to be both pointed and wandering throughout. The latest doc on the Chinese artist and dissident, The Fake Case catalogs Weiwei’s life in the months after his release from prison.
Presented in vérité fashion — without narration, talking heads, or archival footage — The Fake Case comes to feel like a compendium of home movies taken by the artist’s omnipresent companion. Since Weiwei is intelligent and witty, the film is often fascinating, such as when we observe Weiwei’s sculptures that depict his imprisonment by the Chinese government, or when he mocks an English journalist pleading for an interview.
There’s feeling as well, as in a scene where Weiwei’s mother fearfully admonishes him, “If this was 1957, they would’ve killed you already.” But it’s not 1957, and the film illuminates why the government has been so hapless when dealing with him: He blatantly challenges the authority of the state, yet his international visibility protects him from the harshest methods of silencing troublemakers. For Weiwei, the choice to strike a dissident stance is simple: “If I don’t speak out, I am dead already.”
With such a compelling central figure it would be tough for the doc to not stimulate, but stimulation aside, its rather shapeless narrative can feel desultory. That home-movie approach is alternately thought-provoking and banal; do we really need a scene of Weiwei sleeping while his friend photographs him? In spite of the intermittent frustrations, however, Weiwei remains a captivating figure.