Can art effect real change in the world? To this ever-urgent question, “Beijing Spring” — a new documentary about the titular movement for democratic expression that exploded in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China — responds with a resounding yes.
Directed by Andy Cohen with Gaylen Ross, the film focuses on the Stars Art Group, a collective of self-taught practitioners who seized on the tumult after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and deployed their art like Molotov cocktails. They circulated their paintings and literature via underground magazines; papered revolutionary poems and calligraphy on the famed Democracy Wall; and, most notably, mounted a show on the exterior of the National Art Museum of China after being denied permission to exhibit within.
Rousing if somewhat schematic, “Beijing Spring” unfolds as a kind of art-history lesson: In interviews, the Stars look back wistfully on their work, which married ravenous experimentation — including abstract styles and nude figures violently forbidden under Mao — with strident political critique. Wang Keping’s sculpture “Idol” uses some canny detailing to turn a likeness of Mao into that of the Buddha, quietly excoriating the leader’s deification.
But the most stirring parts of “Beijing Spring” showcase the power of the cinematic arts. The film weaves in long-unseen footage of the artists’ demonstrations that thrums with both history and stunning aesthetic beauty. Perched on a fence while dodging the police, the young cameraman, Chi Xiaoning, captured the thronging crowds with startling, intuitive immediacy.
Cohen and Ross’s own filmmaking suffers in comparison to the crafts on display within the film: “Beijing Spring” assembles its materials into a by-the-book progression of archival excerpts and talking-head commentary, serving best as a primer on — rather than an embodiment of — the radical possibilities of artistic form.
Not rated. In Mandarin and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.