The West’s obsession with all things China should make helmer Mika Mattila’s intellectually bracing and visually arresting “Chimeras” a highly viable commodity, just like the art being scrutinized during this ethereal journey into a creatively conflicted East. Portraying two minds in aesthetic crisis — the troubled contemporary-art giant Wang Guangyi and the younger, tentative Liu Gang — Mattila also freeze-frames China at a moment when its aspirations are at war with its sense of identity. The film’s aesthetics should give it a shot at specialty play, but its political subtext could also win over audiences intrigued by the psychology of world power.
There’s an obvious kinship between Wang and Gang, the former a pillar of the ’80s-’90s Chinese New Wave, the latter a fledgling photographer with an ironic eye. Both have assailed advertising and pop culture: Wang’s more famous canvases (one of which is shown going on sale at Sotheby’s for an opening bid of $1.5 million) synthesized the social-realist propaganda of the Mao era with corporate advertising for products like Coca-Cola, and dared the viewer to find a difference. Gang’s work, which becomes the subject of his first gallery show, are photographs of photographs — pictures of highly stylized Western banalities, which Gang carefully folds, spindles, mutilates and then reshoots. (“This one’s damaged,” his shopkeeper father says at the gallery, in one of the film’s more revealing and touching moments.)
There’s the suggestion of a Cezanne tablecloth in a Gang landscape; there are echoes of Warhol in Wang’s satirical paintings. And there are Western influences everywhere in Mattila’s China: Tai chi practitioners exercise before an enormous, illuminated Cartier storefront; Gang photographs in a section of Beijing that might as well be Paris. The emulation of European and American architecture is everywhere in the city, suggesting a Chinese Las Vegas. It also seems that the gatekeepers of the Chinese art world are all Caucasian; in a fashion show captured early in the film, Dior appears to have co-opted the entirety of Chinese culture. (At this point, it’s worth noting that a chimera can refer to not only a mythological beast, but also an organism composed of two or more sets of genes, or an illusion.)
Underneath the film’s shiny surfaces and lush photography (Mattila himself handled the superb lensing) is a sense of consternation. Wang states that he was brainwashed multiple times over his life — by the Cultural Revolution, for instance, and by the Western canon of art. In one scene, he boils over with anger toward a friend with a less-than-Sino-centric view of the world, but one senses Wang’s anger at himself, for having played into what he now sees as artistic imperialism. Gang, meanwhile, wants to devote his next effort to interpreting what he sees as his generation’s most important and influential issue: the one-child policy. But he’s constantly being told it’s a bad career move (i.e., dangerous).
Both men are caught on the horns of dilemmas, but Wang’s is particularly sharp: Although he wants to be more nationalistic in his art, he also sees the Chinese ethic as contrary to individual expression. How else could the biggest disaster of his generation — namely, Mao — have been allowed to happen? In this, Mattila goes far beyond a character study of two fascinating artists into a search for Chinese identity, at precisely the right time.