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China’s Van Goghs

A Film Review

China’s Van Goghs
Directed by Yu Haibo, Yu Tianqi Kiki; Century Image Media, TrueWorks
China, Netherlands 2016
1 hour, 23 minutes in duration
Mandarin, Hunannese, Cantonese, and English, English subtitles

Trailer is available on Vimeo.
The film is currently playing at various film festivals and select movie theatres.

I loved the film.

I usually save my personal take until the end of a review but in this case I want to tell you upfront. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen—it is far from perfect—but as someone passionate about creativity and a writer, I felt the story was well told and furthermore, it brought insightful attention to the creative process. That’s why I loved it.

China’s Van Goghs is a documentary about the oil painters in Dafen village, the largest oil painting village in the world. Located in Shenzhen, China, this village is home to many businesses that replicate famous artwork, particularly Van Gogh’s paintings.

The documentary, directed by father-daughter duo, Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu, does a good job of showing how art has been commoditized when several hundred replica paintings can be produced by only a handful of painters in just a few weeks time. These paintings are then sold in Europe for over 100 times the cost. The collective value of the business in this village is in the millions (US dollars) and people from different parts of China have come to this village to take part.

From there, we are introduced to the main character, Zhao Xiaoyong, who owns his own business replicating Van Gogh paintings. He has been doing this for 20 years, producing around 100,000 paintings. This is all he does, he has no original works of his own. His wife was his first student and together they started this business. Xiaoyong’s lifelong dream is to see Van Gogh’s original paintings in real life.

Eventually, he is able to make the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam and see the originals in person.

China has had a long-standing reputation for replicating what others in the world have created. Hence the nation’s push in the last decade or so to move from “made in China” to “created in China.” The shift was initiated out of a realization that being the replicator puts you behind the curve. You are never the originator, never the owner of the original expression. Much has been said about this shift with regards to its impact on the economy, education, and many other aspects of society.

Less has been said, however, about the impact replicating has on the creative process. This film perfectly showcases this.

When Xiaoyong sees Van Gogh’s original paintings in person, he is rocked to the core as he realizes the existential difference between being an originator and a replicator. He is suddenly faced with many questions that he cannot answer. Even as he sees his own replicas being sold on the streets of Amsterdam, there is an emptiness as he knows it’s not his name that people are taking home. In fact, his name would not be found on any painting in the world.

For the 20 years that he has been replicating Van Gogh’s art he has merely been taking from the outcome of another man’s journey. The end result can be replicated, but the experience that brought about the art cannot be.

“I am a painter but have I become an artist?” – XiaoYong

The creative process is a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual experience. It takes courage, perseverance, conviction, and a strong will (or stubbornness!). An artist is a person that, through a chosen art form, embarks on a journey, endures the ups and downs, fights fiercely, wrestles with the self, all to bring forth an idea from the heart into the world—resulting in a painting, a poem, a song, a dance. Every artist has either intentionally decided what they want to say and how they want to say it or is on a determined search to figure it out.

A replicator doesn’t make any of those choices; they don’t go through the rigor, the emotions, the existential questioning, the soul searching, the depression, the self doubt, or the sparks of inspiration that wake you up in the middle of the night and force you to grab a notepad to jot down a crazy idea. A replicator doesn’t have to withstand the anxiety and nervousness of presenting their creations to the world for the first time and then stomaching the inevitable rejection. A replicator bypasses all of this and simply takes the ending because their work is only an echo of what someone else has already said.

So much is missed when none of it is experienced and where there is no experience, there is no interpretation. To sit in the tension of the creative process and dig through the superficial clutter to unearth a truly honest expression is the kind of hardship that produces pearls. Painting is a skill but artistry is a worldview.

After his encounter in Amsterdam, “Xiaoyong is inspired by van Gogh’s paintings and the hardships he suffered, and resolves to dedicate himself to his own original art, searching for his own authentic voice in order to be true to the spirit of his hero and mentor—Vincent van Gogh.”[1]

As human beings made in the image of God, we are made to be creative. There is creativity in everything, not just in art forms. Witnessing great art should not paralyze us in our journey but encourage us to fight to produce greater expressions of our own. Exercising our God-given creativity to dream, imagine, explore, and create, is ultimately a way of fueling the soul.

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit sector, …View Full Bio

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