"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is a documentary by first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman about the famed Chinese artist and dissident, and the title captures the man. He makes no apologies.
As an artist, Ai is perhaps best known worldwide for his design of Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics and for the 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds with which he filled Turbine Hall in London's Tate Modern museum. He's an artist who likes to work big. He himself is a big, bearish character.
As a dissident, Ai has repeatedly taken on the Chinese government, often at great risk. He publicly criticized the Chinese Communist Party's handling of the 2008 Olympic Games and its suppression of the names of thousands of schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake.
Klayman was already in postproduction when Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities and imprisoned for 81 days. The footage of this incident, and its aftermath, registers as a grim coda, especially coming after the extensive sequence detailing an earlier attack in which Ai was severely beaten in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Chengdu in retaliation for uncovering those earthquake victim statistics.
Although Ai's artistry is rather skimpily explored in this film, Klayman's position seems to be that Ai himself is the actual artwork – a view that Ai encourages. Even though his political dissidence is deadly serious, his approach is that of a performance artist. He stages "happenings." In Shanghai, for example, Ai was invited by government officials to build a studio there, which they promptly demolished when he fell from favor. His response was to stage a public party at the work space featuring river crab (the name of which in Mandarin sounds like "harmony").
Klayman fills in Ai's background, including the plight of his father, Ai Qing, a famous poet who was disgraced during Mao's Cultural Revolution. We see the artist with his wife and his mother, and romping, somewhat sheepishly, with his illegitimate son. In such moments, he seems less bearish than teddy-bearish.
Above all, Klayman delineates how Ai, even in his continually straitened circumstances, has employed social media to get his message out. Though he has paid the price, Ai is a pathfinder in this new phenomenon in tactical insurrection. "Never Sorry" is a new-style profile in 21st-century courage. Ai's rallying cry is "Don't retreat. Retweet." Grade: B+ (Rated R for some language.)