Art College 1994, a deadpan slice of comic-sad social realism from Chinese animator Liu Jian (Have a Nice Day), offers reassuring evidence that although cultural specificities can shape artistic traditions — and fashion and tastes fluctuate — art students are basically all the same and always have been: slovenly, idealistic, and prone to pretentious waffle, especially when lubricated with alcohol. But also, at least based on the evidence of the characters here, reasonably endearing with their guileless dreams of making meaningful work in a world where it sometimes feels like everything has been done. Mind you, others just want to meet romantic partners, make money somehow and maybe go abroad someday.

There’s a sense that this gently meandering, sketchbook-like work is aware of its own cinematic precedents. It certainly seems to suffer from an anxiety of influence as it tries to carve out a space for itself somewhere in the region of Eric Rohmer wistful romances, Richard Linklater ensemble stories, and Sixth Generation semi-underground Chinese filmmakers like Jia Zhangke. In a sly bit of casting, that last filmmaker, who’s generationally a contemporary of Liu, actually voices a small role as a successful painter who comes back to his alma mater to lecture the students on life as an art superstar. (He reassures them that the moon is neither more nor less beautiful in other countries, but nothing beats seeing a Van Gogh painting in the flesh.)

Art College 1994

The Bottom Line

Endearing, if you can take the dorm-room philosophizing.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Dong Zijian, Zhou Dongyu, Chizi, Papi Jiang, Huang Bo, Renke, Dapeng, Wang Hongwei, Jia Zhangke, Bai Ke, Bi Gan, Bu Guanjin, Kevin Tsai, Xu Zhiyuan, Peng Lei
Director: Liu Jian
Screenwriters: Lin Shan, Liu Jian

1 hour 58 minutes

The rest of the voice cast represents a mix of newcomers and major stars in China. In the latter camp, Dong Zijian, who has featured in a few of Jia’s film, voices Zhang Xiaojun, effectively the film’s lead character and presumably a stand-in for the young Liu. (An opening quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man suggests autobiography is afoot.) Like Liu himself did back in the early 1990s, Xiaojun is studying traditional painting technique at an institution not yet ready to encourage students to embrace Western art practices like conceptualism or Dada. But Xiaojun is drawn to more expressionist styles — that is when he gets around to actually painting instead of mooching, moping and hanging out with his roommate Rabbit (Chizi), a sweet but less intellectually ambitious fellow student who doesn’t get Kurt Cobain the way Xiaojun does.

Other guys in their circle include Zhao Youcai (Huang Bo), who has a flair for cutting hair; tall, skinny roommate Skinny Horse (Renke); and rival Lin Weiguo (Bai Ke), who cuts a painting Xiaojun and Rabbit were working on together, prompting them to beat him up in an early scene. Meanwhile, in the women’s dormitory, shy, bespectacled music student Hao Lili (Zhou Dongyu, Better Days) shares a room with the much more confident, ambitious aspiring singer Gao Hong (Papi Jiang), a beauty several of the boys have the hots for. At one point, Hong insists she come along as a chaperone when Lili has an arranged date with a square but polite boy she barely remembers from her hometown. He acts like a perfect gentleman, but Hong derides that he’s studying French instead of English and finds all manner of ways to patronize him.

Later on, there’s a barely articulated but never acted-upon frisson between Lili and Xiaojun, but the relationship doesn’t catch fire. In fact, the film is threaded with sparks and embers of relationships, but none of the interactions really blaze into intense drama. Some viewers may find that tests their endurance, especially if they lack patience for the great chunks of sophomoric (literally) philosophizing that make up large stretches of the film.

But Liu has a knack for evoking the rhythms of those dorm-room debates, and the use of photographic material as reference is felt in the background bric-a-brac, the way the concrete is crumbling in the corn next to worn posters of Michael Jackson and punk bands. As animation, the movements are limited like old-school cel work. Liu talks in the press notes about using computers for expediency but trying to maintain a handmade vibe that fits the material, making this feel altogether like a lost graphic novel you find in a dive bar and love until the pages fall apart.      

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Dong Zijian, Zhou Dongyu, Chizi, Papi Jiang, Huang Bo, Renke, Dapeng, Wang Hongwei, Jia Zhangke, Bai Ke, Bi Gan, Bu Guanjin, Kevin Tsai, Xu Zhiyuan, Peng Lei
Production companies: Nezha Bros. Pictures Company Limited, Modern Sky Entertainment Company
Limited, China Academy of Art, School of Film and Animation
Director/editor: Liu Jian
Screenwriters: Lin Shan, Liu Jian
Producer: Yang Cheng
Executive producer: Lynne Wang
Animation director: Li Jiajia
Background director: Zeng Hongyu
Art advisor: Lai Baoer
Sound director: Li Dan-Feng
Key animators: Li Jiajia, Wang Mile, Guo Xiaoruo
Music: Cui Jian, Chen Li, Yunfan Sun, David Wen-Wei Liang, Alex Liu
Sales: Memento International

1 hour 58 minutes


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