"I ended up making more or less the kind of film about China that I was determined in the beginning NOT to make," admits director and cinematographer Mika Mattila of his exquisitely-rendered documentary CHIMERAS.
Mattila, a Finnish cameraman who lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2010, is frank about his first film as a director. He wanted to shatter that rigid idea we have in the West that all films emanating from China are ultimately about East vs. West and a kind of "exotic Orient" that panders to stereotypes.
"I decided to make a film about the art boom and the dynamics of [that world]," he explains. "I was naïve enough to think that art transcends national identities and has a universal language."
(By the way, if you are wondering about the title of the movie, skip to the end of this article.)
The film chronicles the personal and philosophical journeys of two artists: Wang Guangyi -- one of the granddaddies of China's contemporary art movement and now, one of the top 10 living artists in terms of sales -- and the newbie on the scene -- photography student Liu Gang, the only child of parents who also work in the canteen of his art school in Beijing.
It starts off at a glitzy opening in which the elder artist intones: "Art has given me so many things... it has also disappointed me." The first few scenes lure the viewer into personal worlds -- hooks which never let go.
Mattila's access to both artists is all-inclusive. The intimate encounters the audience experiences i.e. their daily lives, relationships and revelations, are a result of what the filmmaker says was "countless hours" of chatting, which led to friendships and a bond of trust.
"Chinese can be incredibly natural and open in front of the camera," noted Mattila. "China does not have a tradition of [reality shows], nor is there a long tradition of vérité documentary. So people are not as guarded or as worried."
Taking more than four years to complete, Mattila had initially followed five characters -- including an American art forger living in China: "As I got deeper into the characters, the themes and [the question of] identity started to dominate." As a result, two strong characters emerged.
Altered his world views
Mattila, who frets that his documentary may paint a one-sided portrait yet again of the Chinese and China, need not worry. His film -- shot in a beautifully naturalistic style with an artistic eye -- is imbued with layers of meaning and profound moments of intimacy with his subjects.
That process of doing a documentary and living in China changed him.
"I now see myself better -- all the fantasies, myths and histories that are ingrained in my identity as a Finn, European or Global Citizen," Mattila observes. "Trying to grapple with the Chinese way of seeing things has forced me to open my own perspectives and to allow my world views to evolve."
That kind personal struggle is reflected in CHIMERAS, where both artists tussle with the age-old question of Art vs. Commerce, Community or Family vs. the Individual and the globalization of culture (i.e. East vs. West).
While the film is -- at its most basic -- about the behemoth known as China, rest assured that it has vast themes that resonate with anyone: who am I? what am I doing? why am I doing this?
Wang -- whose opulent house mimics many North American monster homes -- incessantly emits displeasure about his own fame and fortune: "We are always blatantly imitating the West," he declares to his gang of fellow artists.
Liu wanders the city as his camera lays witness to the modernization/Westernization of the place and its people. A thoughtful young man, he regards images of the West (portrayed in glossy ads) as "fantasies" which leads him to wonder if "a better life is always the life that is impossible to reach for you."
Reflecting on the Eastern perspective that the artists grapple with, Mattila says it has more of a "flexible pragmatism... in contrast to Western, rigid idealism. Wang Guangyi ponders on how it's a good thing he has been brainwashed so many times. He feels people in the West lack this experience of 'destroying one's ideals.'"
As the film trundles along, we witness Liu's career blossom before the camera and sense the pressures he's under as his parents urge him to fully commit to his art career while his girlfriend talks of marriage.
"I don't even know how to live for myself," he asserts near the end.
Which path does he choose? You'll have to catch the film:
- Friday, April 26 at the Bell Lightbox, 9 p.m.
- Sunday April 28 at 1:30 p.m. at Scotia theatres
- Thursday May 2, 4:30 p.m. at the Bell Lightbox.
Mattila will be present at the screenings.
Check listings at: http://www.hotdocs.ca
Film website: http://www.chimerasdoc.com/
Mattila answers: What is the significance of the title, CHIMERAS?
Dictionary definition – noun:
1. a mythical hybrid beast with parts taken from various animals. (e.g. Khimaira in Greek mythology or Pixiu in China.)
2. a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve.
3. an organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues, formed by processes such as fusion, grafting, or mutation
1. This is analogous to the central theme: how to modernize China, how to fit the traditional elements with the Western process and how to combine two traditions that do not always seem to fit together seamlessly.
2. It connects with the often overtly ambitious dreams that are the underlying current of this film. Nothing will be good enough compare to the dreams that China has about its future.
3. The film itself is a kind of chimera: composed of elements that do not necessarily belong together. In my mind, it also describes my way of making this film: overly ambitious plans, trying to fit together many storylines and themes.