March 21, 2023


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‘Art College 1994’ review: Friendly, overlong Chinese slacker animation

4 min read

The quote that opens Chinese director Liu Jian’s random but friendly new animated feature is instructive. “To live, to err, to fall, to win, to recover life from life” is a passage from James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and indeed, Liu himself attended art college as a young man. Early 90s people, when and where “Art College 1994”, surprisingly, is set. The movie’s quasi-memoir feel has its charm — the animation techniques are applied not to flights of fancy but to real, ordinary slices of life — but that’s also its major flaw. Liu is quite successful in recreating life from life; Whether he makes it into a play is another question. Like its characters, “Art College 1994” gives the impression of having too much time on its hands.

Liu’s drawing style is full of small joys, especially in the intricate backgrounds, which in his last Berlin title, “A Beautiful Day,” are where the details live. In contrast to the peeling-paint walls and bicycle-strewn alleys, the characters are less defined: simple, colorful 2-D outlines distinguished mainly by hairstyles and body shapes. The fact that these figures are voiced by a stellar cast of Chinese personalities — including “Better Days” breakout Zhou Dongyu, Dong Jijian from “Mountains May Depart,” viral folk-rock sensation Ren Ke, Internet comedian Papi Jiang and revered director Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan — Impressive, but not something many outside of China will recognize until the closing credits surprise.

There is a slightly disappointing lack of a single point of view, in a narrative that first supports one, then a loosely linked group of colleagues. But primarily, the process revolves around friends and associates Xiaojun (Dong Zhijian) and Rabbit (Chizi), two students who, as the film opens, are working on what Rabbit declares to be a masterpiece that will win them a major prize. A brief debate ensues over the optics of accepting or rejecting such an award, before they arrive at the very boom-china conclusion that they should “screw the award, take the money”. But before they can put this pragmatic principle into action, Lin Weiguo (Bai Ke) – a rival student who boasts the ultimate status symbol in a blonde, blue-eyed American girlfriend – cuts the canvas. The tite-for-tat cycle of revenge for this deed gives the film a glut of subplots at times.

The boys often hang out with part-time hairdresser and full-time art philosopher Zhao Youkai (Huang Bo), whose presence on campus is tolerated although, despite multiple attempts, he is never accepted. Threesome’s cyclical conversations, sometimes joined by fellow students nicknamed mostly for their weight — skinny horses, chubsters, etc. — have been denigrated, especially youkai, who quickly emerges as role models for this fluid phase of life, about art. Talk of a big game, experience revelation after revelation about its purpose, but never actually build.

As well-rounded individuals, despite less screen time, the two women in the guys’ orbits fare a little better. Hao Lily (beautifully voiced by Chou Dongyu) is a soft-spoken beautiful piano student with an unabashedly reciprocated crush on Xiaojun, but also a practical approach to her future that encourages her to pay more attention. “Sooner or later, we all have to marry someone,” he sighs to the horror of his more worldly best friend Gao Hong (MVP Papi Xiang, bringing a nice dose of down-to-earth wit), an aspiring singer willing to compromise Lily. . But a late exchange between Hong and Xiaojun, outside the nightclub where he’s now singing, is a subtle marker of how all these Linklater-esque slacker characters must, by the end of the film, accept the new reality. Part of the growing up process, after all, is realizing that there isn’t an infinite amount of time to do well in romance, or to rebel against your elders, or to establish a career. Sometimes, it may actually be too late.

For those who like to see Chinese culture as an impenetrable fortress to outsiders, the perfect relationship of these potentially aimless youths, their unthinking self-absorption and tendency to believe that their every new thought can be a brand new object, a small revelation in the world. Their views are informed by the traditional Chinese art they study but also by Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, as well as Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, whose posters deck dorm rooms and billboards alike. But if “Art College 1994” is an all-too-recognizable snapshot of the humdrum rhythms of struggling, directionless early-20-something life, it also poses a problem for those of us most familiar with it: Once we’ve lived through it, what do we do? Really want to spend two long hours like this again?

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