In June, Chinese artist’s Ai Wei Wei’s bail conditions were lifted one year after he’d been released from 81 days of detention. He can now travel within China, and he’s tweeting again, but he can’t travel outside of the country. The documentary based on his life and work has an ironic title, because the Chinese authorities did find a way to make Ai sorry. Near the end of the film, we see a broken and exhausted man being returned to his Beijing home, a once-garrulous man who now refuses to talk. Earlier in the film, we’d seen Ai sitting in the back of a cab gently stroking the hand of his little son, and there was no doubt in my mind that while in prison Ai was informed what the next wave of penalties would be if he ever stirred the shit again.
A year after those images were shot, his account of the lifting of his bail conditions was published in The Guardian. The language in his essay shows astonishing courage—he calls China “a monstrous machine”—and you have to wonder what fate the man is heading toward now.
The film is wonderful. Half satyr, half mad buddha, Ai is a force of nature and a man of incredible appetite. (And not just for food.) The movie is more tense than any of the Bourne films because Ai spends the entire film tempting the authorities to capture and/or kill him. The absurd machinations of the Chinese authorities trying to thwart this strange and wonderful man make Never Sorry as comic as some of Ai’s work, but it reminds you that you can put a smile on just about anything and obscure its real meaning. I don’t think Ai smiles once in the film, but a uniformed policeman on the steps of one of the courthouses smiles warmly as he physically pushes Ai and his supporters away from the building. When Ai found himself a guest of the government, you can only wonder how many times a day they smiled at him.
It’s a great thing to be born free and not have to struggle against anything but chance. Never Sorry inspires you to think of Ai and his supporters as courageous and daring and fearless, but they’re more than that. Each person you see in this movie could meet their fate as a sacrifice to an ideal, and every one of them has made of their life an artwork.
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry. Do see it.