The spectacular visual displays of the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang — firecrackers igniting the perimeter of a massive installation, an army of pyrotechnic pixels bursting in unison over a desert landscape — lend an undeniably cinematic razzle-dazzle to “Sky Ladder.” Those eye-catching elements aside, Kevin Macdonald’s latest documentary is a slender but involving portrait of this internationally renowned figure, touching on how the difficulties of growing up and working in his home country have informed a style at once uniquely dynamic and deeply rooted in classic Eastern traditions. Sifting lightly through several decades of history, but tethered to the present day by Cai’s recent attempts to realize the soaringly ambitious project of the title, this diverting 76-minute profile should easily climb its way into theatrical and small-screen berths.
A brief prologue recounts how the Chinese discovered gunpowder while searching for an elixir that would grant them immortality — an irony that suggests its creative as well as destructive powers. Certainly they were a prominent fixture of Cai’s upbringing in Quanzhou, Fujian province, where he observed the effects of the Cultural Revolution firsthand (depicted in black-and-white archival clips). The 58-year-old Cai recalls how, as an adolescent, he joined the crowds in burning books — the prized possessions of his father, a calligrapher and painter who often butted heads with other members of the family for prioritizing intellectual pursuits over their needs.
Unsurprisingly, Cai inherited much of his love of art and literature from his father, who influenced the direction of his own paintings. Yet parental inspiration and an aesthetic steeped in Maoist philosophy only went so far to explain his search for a “disruptive energy” in his art, something he achieved by igniting explosives against paper. The resulting gunpowder drawings, with their charred, silhouette-like forms, are haunting, beautifully imperfect records of something chaotic and ephemeral. Much the same could be said of the footage of Cai’s glorious fireworks (lensed by Robert Yeoman and Florian Zinke), which range from more traditional skyline displays to the staggering “Elegy: Explosion Event,” which opened his 2014 Shanghai exhibition, “The Ninth Wave.” Excerpted here at some length, “Elegy” is a symphony of multi-hued smoke blasts staged over the Huangpu River, and a ravishing example of Cai’s gift for turning explosives into astonishingly detailed images.
While “Sky Ladder” might have benefited from a more detailed explication of what we’re seeing and the complex technical processes behind it, Cai’s work is arguably all the more powerful for going undissected. In any event, the work’s environmental subtext is plain enough, even without the insights offered here by a few talking heads; “Elegy” is a prime example, blending biodegradable colored powders to achieve gorgeous, eco-friendly evocations of plant and animal life. It’s the sort of critique that feels especially resonant in a country known for its dire pollution levels, and it speaks to the myriad ways Cai has found himself at odds with his national identity. He reminisces here about how, after developing his art during the era of post-Mao recovery, he felt liberated as an artist only after moving to Japan in 1986; he moved in 1995 to New York, where he lives today.
Like his countryman Zhang Yimou (seen briefly here), once known for running afoul of the Chinese government with his politically charged films, Cai has drawn criticism for lending his talents to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While he offers a calm, somewhat terse rebuttal to the charge of selling out (“Everywhere artists work for their government”), Macdonald does honestly address the inevitable challenges and compromises of such collaboration: A fireworks show that Cai designed for a 2014 gathering of world economic leaders in Beijing is held up as a failure, spoiled by too many cooks and competing physical interests, with the result that Cai’s artistic/narrative concept and environmental message were lost.
Tall, lean and sporting a buzz cut, Cai comes off as a gentle, soft-spoken individual who’s slow to reveal his thoughts to the camera, though he’s not above the occasional moment of well-earned hubris (“Isn’t your grandson awesome?” he crows on the phone with his grandmother after one particularly memorable show). Lending the movie its narrative framework as well as its emotional hook are Cai’s decades-spanning attempts to launch the “Sky Ladder,” a 500-meter-tall structure consisting of steel-reinforced bamboo rungs that, when ignited and then lifted via hot-air balloon, will create the impression of a series of steps ascending into the heavens.
It’s no spoiler to note that, after years of repeated delays due to bad weather and wildfire risks, the audience finally gets to see this hugely ambitious and expensive project get off the ground, and Macdonald (“Touching the Void,” “Life in a Day”) does full justice to this majestically fleeting spectacle. Most notable about the climactic unveiling, however, are the specifics of where it takes place and who is watching. “Sky Ladder” may not fully penetrate the mystery of Cai’s artistic identity, but it ends with the poignant suggestion that the most significant accomplishments often stem from the simplest, most personal impulse.