Among the keenly observed moments in the new documentary about Ai Weiwei is an exchange between the artist, under house arrest in China on trumped-up charges, and his mother. "If this was 1957 they would have killed you already," she tells him, and the weight of that observation registers on the seemingly fearless provocateur's face.
In 1957, the year of Ai's birth, Maoist China began a purge of intellectuals. Ai's poet father was reduced to cleaning toilets. No such obscurity has befallen the subject of "Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case," whose large-scale conceptual works have made him a leading figure on the international art scene, albeit one who can no longer travel internationally.
Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen focuses on the year of probation after Ai's 81-day detention in spring 2011, widely considered government retaliation for his unrelenting criticism. Johnsen's film is neither a straightforward portrait nor a self-reflexive political commentary like "This Is Not a Film," made during Iranian director Jafar Panahi's house arrest. "Fake Case" assumes a certain familiarity with Ai and his work — explored more thoroughly in Alison Klayman's "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." But as a follow-up and a companion piece to that 2012 documentary, Johnsen's new work is remarkably intimate and astute.
Under constant surveillance, his stamina challenged and legal team dwindling, Ai faces the tax-evasion lawsuit against his company, playfully named Fake, that gives the film its double-edged title. Johnsen's camera catches that playfulness wearing thin and the respite that Ai's young son provides.
It catches Ai pushing on, assembling a major installment series that is pointedly autobiographical: scenes depicting his detention. Whether Ai will regain his passport is an open question. A sculpted version of his prisoner self, meanwhile, is touring the world.
"Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case"
MPAA rating: None; in English and Mandarin with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.