Art College 1994 : Film Review

Art College 1994 animation still

"My sickness is that I have no feeling". The lyrics (the song ' Wild on the Snow' sung and composed by Cui Jian) sound too harsh on this otherwise heartbreakingly non-particular account of an artistic University life in 90s China (whose artists always have an eye towards the West). Penned by Liu Jian (also acting as editor) of 'Have A Nice Day', the 2D animation feature (partially inspired by his experience of studying in the Chinese Southern Academy of Arts during the 1990s), manages to look tamer than its predecessor, yet it cuts deep; the way one character cuts deep into a young artist's work (and gets hit in return).

Bespectacled Dai Zhifei 'Rabbit' (Shaoxing) and music lover Dang Xiaojun (Dong Zijian) are colleagues and roommates majoring in art; from Joyce moving to Nirvana to Nietzsche, the choice for a famous artist seem similar; make your work and die at 27. From the female side of the spectrum, Gao Hong (Papi) and Hao Lili (Zhou Dongyu) are aspiring musicians; Gao Hong is the more practical one, while Lili seems to like classical and traditional stuff at best.

Whoever thought the two pairs would mix romantically during the film's narrative, would have been nowhere near the truth. Liu Jian takes pains to ascertain individuality at all costs, as a necessary consequence of artistry. This decision entails no serious romantic involvements for young hopefuls, who parade almost the complete film wondering about their future, artistic or otherwise. Their development is not one of event acceleration but works predominantly in terms of annihilation. Every character has their manifesto early in the film; the film subsequently makes us watch this manifesto contradicted, dissolved, or simply transformed (Dang Xiaojun, torn between tradition and modernity, has the better fate).

This could easily have been a Cambridge/Oxford University novella, in which the characters are too heavily invested in philosophical afterthoughts (Schopenhauer is a constant presence) to ground their own artistic identity. And it works. All the art movements and fashions are here attested and tried (from oil painting to performance and installation, from talk of Marcel Duchamp to classical sculpture), it reveals a vibrant, radiating picture of a University life everyone would like to be part of (or has been part of). Liu Jian rarely rests on plot development, which mostly recycles for each film part earlier tropes; but uses manifesto vignettes to their fullest (art vs. art exploitation and curation, art and ordinary life) before starting to dismantle them on the next frame.

 He doesn't make a slow-burning or theatrical film either, even though 'Art College 1994' is a dialogue-heavy animation feature. The shot sequence is swift and resembles his action-packed 'Have A Nice Day'; the film's autumnal palette and the character's carefully realistic design, on the other hand, carry a gravitas that the individual lines sometimes seem to lack. (But check the specific artworks the characters make, from collages to abstract expressionism, and you'll see a more freely-inspired artistic testament). In its 118-minute running time, 'Art College 1994' is a deep caleidoscope of insecure youngsters, who would do anything to look secure -apart from being boring (a leitmotif in a film that employs some real oddballs, apart from the main characters' quartet).

East and West cultures surely clash here as well; a University alumnus (voiced by Jia Zhangke) attempts to offer cheap consolations about the vastness of art; yet the arguing between Gao Hong and Lilli and Lilli's decision to choose Western security and 'freedom' (instead of Eastern fame and unpredictability) is as dramatic and relevant as anything.

 Without becoming boring, the film sometimes overstays its manifestation of youth as an open, non-practically settled coming-of-age period. Yet, it is anarchically charming, cleverly empathetic, and overwhelmingly relatable. Self-absorbedness here functions as an antidote to deeply rooted conservatism the characters have to experience otherwise; and 'Art College 1994' makes it clear that you'd rather talk endlessly about the 'meta' in poor artists making an 'Arte Povera' exhibition than marry the slick young boy to avoid having to face any of the above dilemmas.

'Art College 1994' opens theatrically in the US on 26 April 2024.

contributed by: Vassilis Kroustallis

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