A documentary that begs to be seen in a theater, "Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang" offers an inviting glimpse into the life of a truly international artist, one whose colorful fireworks displays literally paint the air. Even if you've never been to one of his explosion events, or caught his breathtaking installation work, you probably saw his memorable contributions to the opening ceremony of Beijing's Olympic Games in 2008. (Remember those sky footprints?)
Kevin Macdonald's beautifully shot, quietly hovering portrait is of a pensive, dogged man who grew out of a Cultural Revolution childhood and a belief in the freeing aesthetic properties of gunpowder to become a renowned art world figure and pop-art brand known for the panoramic sizzle of his productions.
The movie also follows the artist's latest attempt after 14 years to suspend a fireworks-lit ladder seemingly to the heavens, as a way to "connect the Earth to the universe." For someone whose occasional projects with the Chinese government (like the 2014 APEC summit ceremony) have earned him a measure of controversy, it's obviously meaningful to him that Sky Ladder eventually happens quickly, without permits or oversight, in the fishing village where he grew up.
There's joy on his face watching him feed the spectacle live to his 100-year-old grandmother's iPad, as if the ability to connect his art to his family carries its own brightly burning essence.
'Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang'
In Chinese and English, with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also on Netflix