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LIU JIAN: ART COLLEGE 1994 艺术学院 (2023)

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ZHANG ZIAJUN (DONG ZIJIAN AND RABBIT/DAI ZHIFEI (CHIZI) IN ART COLLEGE 1994

Animation evokes a Nineties Chinese art school populated by slackers

The academic world is notoriously tough material for fiction. That goes as well for art school, as shown by Liu Jian's 2D animation on the subject. As Leslie Felperin truly says in her Biennale Hollywood Reporter review, this film shows "a knack for evoking the rhythms" of "dorm-room debates." But such debates go over material you got tired of a long time ago. Thus Jessica Kiang's Variety review types Art School 1994 as "amiable but overlong." Wendy Ide points out in her Berlin Screen Daily review, the Nineties were a time of "seismic change" in China. This film is a quiet echo of that. Its slacker poses and trying on of radical attitudes could not have happened otherwise. At this point, however, they may be of interest mainly to ciné-sinologists, or western art school grads of a certain age who don't mind reading subtitles of the talky student debates.

Liu JIan is a specialist in animation who previously made Piercing, about the financial crisis (2010) and Have a Nice Day about an attempted theft (2017); I reviewed the latter, finding its appeal, and its action, a bit wan. But appeal there was, and is here, both for visuals and content.

Those three top reviewers from leading trade journals covered the new film and it showed at the Berlinale for reasons, one of which is the involvement of two of China's major directors, Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan, to play voice roles here.

It's the young men, mostly long-haired, often with unlit cigarettes in their mouths, some with little mustaches, who do most of the debating. Working on a painting or sculpture (or piece of conceptual art) isn't much more cinematic than working at a writing desk, but we do see studios. Traditional ones are compared with oil painting ones: they smell cleaner. Gouache painting is disrecommended: it can run if it gets wet. Acrylic is spoken well of: it's permanent. A couple of guys are working on an big painting, and another one slashes it. Whether painting is even valid anymore is considered.

There is an older guy who never got admitted to the school but hangs out at it all the time. He is debunked, but later turns out to become successful - one of several illustrations that actually going to art school isn't what makes you into an artist, any more than writing school makes you into a writer. What it is, is a place to hang out and be cool (or nihilistic). Or it's a way to find a girlfriend or boyfriend (and one girl trashes another for planning on marrying a dull, safe boy - and she runs away). Most importantly, from the art point of view (apart from learning techniques and media and being provided with materials and studios to work in), it's a way to meet people. To this end, some students wind up being dealers or curators, and galleries come looking for emerging talent.

Dorm bull sessions are carried on by these long-haired young men with dead cigarettes in their mouths. Does making money matter? Is traditional art the way to go? They often long for travel to the West. Sometimes they simply wonder if art matters - or is the only thing that speaks to the soul - or if anything matters. They cite Sartre, "Madame Bovary's Lover" [sic], Van Gogh's sunflowers, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and many other mainstays of western culture. There is almost an equal number of young women, several studying singing.

What's special here is the "seismic change" - that China is coming alive and opening up to the West at this moment. It's also a time when getting someone a new Walkman was a big deal and computers and cellphones aren't seen. The internet was just getting ready to explode. People just talk here. These art students are aware of western art and artists but not directly in touch with them. It varies: Zhang Xiaojun (Dong Zijian) is keenly aware of Kurt Cobain, who's just died, his best friend Rabbit/Dai Zhifei (Chizi), less so. The school, as represented in Professor Feng (Wang Hongwei), is not ready to embrace the adoption of anything outside traditional Chinese art.

There are conflicts about pairings in the women's dorm and glimmerings of attractions on both sides, but little happens other than a chaste date. There are breakthroughs of understanding, moments of intellectual (and maybe aesthetic) excitement, doubtless plans made for the future. But nothing decisive happens. This is about being in art school, and Liu has already shown in Have a Nice Day that he isn't much into decisive plot action. It's all about the talk and the atmosphere. Maybe that evokes Éric Rohmer, more likely Richard Linklater, as Felperin suggests, or maybe not. Pleasant but underwhelming.

Art College 1994 艺术学院, 118 mins., debuted Feb. 24, 2023 at Berlin in competition, showing also at Vienna, Sydney, China and Melbourne. Originally screened for this review as part of the Jul. 14-30, 2023 New York Asian Film Festival. Now distributed by Deknalog, it opens Friday, April 26, 2024 at Metrograph-in-Theater and on VOD via Metrograph-at-Home, as part of Liu Jian x 2 alongside the director's Berlinale debut feature animation Have a nice Day.

The entire cast/voice list is as follows:
Rabbit/Dai Zhifei (Chizi), Zhang Ziajun (Dong Zijian), Lin Weiguo (Bai Ke), Xie Caixia (Li Jiajia), Zhao Youcai (Huang Bo), Shou Ma/Ma Yongfu (Renke), Angel (Ziao Yu), Gao Hong (Papi), Hao Lili (Zhou Dongyu), Xiao Mei (Bu Guanjin), Li Baichuan (Xu Zhiyuan), Curator (Peng Lei), Chubster/Luo Hao (Bi Gan), Hu Tianming (Wang Hongwei), The Owner of Tape Store (Shen Lihui), Wu Yingjun (Da Peng), Professor Feng (Wang Hongwei), Afro Hair Chubster (Zeng Hongyu), Afro Hair SKinny (Liu Jian), Section Chief (Zhang Dasheng), Chen Zianyu (Huang Lu), Gu YongQing (Jia Zhangke), Student A (Duan Qi), Student B (Yang Cheng), Student C (Zhang Chenlu), Boss Lady (Fanf Jun), Er Ge (Duan Lian), Guo Sixiang (Kevin Tsai, 'Taiwan, China), A De (Du Haibin), Bar Girl (Hu Wenxin), Zhang Daydong (Zhang Zixian), Young Man A (Xu Lei), Young Man B (Guo Xiaoruo).

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