There is a fear after the breathtaking fireworks display that opens Kevin MacDonald’s portrait of the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo Qiang, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo Qiang” that it might be self-defeating. After all, the frame of the film is whether or not Cai’s attempt at creating a 500-meter tall ladder that ascends into the heavens, in the artist’s words “to connect the earth to the universe,” will be successful and we’re supposed to believe it’s impossible when clearly nothing is for him. Yet MacDonald, who is now an expert at finding the drama in real life, creates a film that feels as if it’s one of Cai’s early experiments as a frustrated painter who began applying gun powder to his oil canvases just to see what would happen and ultimately creating a portrait exploding with all different colors as a result.
Given his unique facility as a filmmaker of both comprehensive nonfiction investigations and big-budget action movies, MacDonald is ideally suited to capture both the spectacle of Cai’s work, which demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and illuminate and contextualize it. With Cai, he has a fascinating subject, the child of a calligrapher father and an illiterate mother who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China before moving to Japan where he found his groove as an artist. Though as eloquent in speech as he is in art, Cai’s humility may undercut his usefulness as an interview subject, but the film gathers insightful interviews from family, colleagues and critics who all have a way with words. Of course, there’s also the art which can speak for itself, as the film flashes through one extraordinary display after another, criss-crossing the globe to take in the elaborate fireworks spectacles such as “Tango Fireworks” in Argentina and “One Night Stand” in Paris or the many physical installations often featuring surreal scenes of animals in museums such as the Guggenheim in New York, all set to Alex Heffes’ propulsive score.
Considering the usually fleeting nature of Cai’s work, it is particularly special to see it preserved and captured by someone with an eye for scale and ambiance, employing both “Grand Budapest Hotel” cinematographer Robert Yeoman and Florian Zinke to man the camera and moving effortlessly between the creative cocoon Cai has created for himself and his outsized projects. The film also doesn’t shy away from noting his many contradictions, at first seeming as if it will let Cai get away without much comment on the issue of his work with the Chinese government on 2008 Olympics, only to chronicle his considerable frustrations with mounting a showcase for the Asia-Pacific economic forum APEC in 2014 firsthand with footage of Communist Party officials strip away any of his artistic intent in cold boardrooms. It also contemplates what it means for the artist to have become so successful that he can no longer experiment quite as much on a smaller scale, often working on projects financed in the millions, and create more audience-friendly spectacle when his desire is to challenge them.
At a brisk 76 minutes, “Sky Ladder” keeps with Cai’s style of dazzling the eye, but to do so with depth, culminating with the artist’s fourth attempt at the film’s title project. After witnessing the breadth of his career, it is a stroke of MacDonald’s own virtuosity to be allowed witness one of these projects actually coming together as a bookend that feels unforced and suspenseful. After tackling such subjects as epic in size as Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ harrowing climb of the Andes in “Touching the Void” and “Marley,” a biography of Jamaica’s favorite son that felt as if it carried the weight of the entire country, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo Qiang” may appear to be modest by comparison, yet it may be his most accomplished doc to date. For as tall as Cai imagines his latest effort will rise, the audience may actually feel as if they’ve been lifted even higher.
“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo Qiang” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play the Sundance Film Festival five more times on January 22nd at 8:30 am at the Prospector Square Theatre and 9 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 23rd at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, January 28th at the Redstone Cinema 1 at 3:30 pm, and January 29th at 3 pm at the Temple Theatre.