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The New Yorker’s Richard Brody on Zhao Liang, Jia Zhangke, Ai Weiwei

by Kevin B. Lee

Zhao Liang confronted by Ai Weiwei on camera

In his blog on the New Yorker website, critic Richard Brody responds to last weeks’ New York Times cover feature on Zhao Liang, director of Crime and Punishment (distributed by dGenerate) and Petition (which Brody deems “the fiercest and most confrontational film regarding the Chinese government’s suppression of dissent that I’ve seen”). Brody summarizes the article’s charting of the tensions that arose between Zhao Liang and activist/artist Ai Weiwei following Zhao’s following Jia Zhangke’s lead to withdraw their films from the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival in light of political tensions between the festival and Chinese authorities.

Brody focuses on a video of Ai’s on-camera challenge to Zhao for giving in to the government’s demands. Ai also insinuates that Jia withdrew from the festival so as to ensure good standing with the Chinese government in order to produce a government-approved film made for the Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew. Brody counters criticism that the film is a feature length promotional video for Shanghai compromised by the constraints of government approval:

If so, the government didn’t get its money’s worth: the film (which I reviewed when it was shown here earlier this year) is an audacious recuperation of ways of life and thought from pre-Communist China, an embrace of Taiwan and Hong Kong, a poignant lament for victims of the Cultural Revolution, and a depiction of the Expo as an alienating, inhuman monstrosity. (He did something similar when making his first officially approved film, “The World,” at Beijing’s World Park.) Jia’s symbolic art, like that of Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch under the Hays Code, is ingeniously conceived to say exactly what’s on his mind regardless of external constraints.

He also tries to broker a conciliatory stance between Ai’s righteous indignation and Zhao’s pragmatic compromise:

Ai’s fury is entirely justified – he has endured, and continues to endure, horrific ordeals in order to live freely under a tyrannical regime, and he is entitled to view those who make common cause with it, of any sort, as being on the wrong side of morality. But only he and others who have endured similar persecution are entitled to say so. Heroism can’t be undertaken prescriptively, and those of us who write and make art without fear of arrest should pause before accusing Zhao of collaboration or cowardice.

Read Brody’s full article.

Jia Zhangke’s Dong and Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment are available on Amazon


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