One of the most affecting moments in China’s Van Goghs unfolds in a small art gallery, where the documentary’s protagonists and their friends eagerly gather to watch the 1956 Vincent van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. Their excitement soon turns to dismay when they take in the Dutch painter’s struggles; and by the time director Vincente Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas reach Van Gogh’s suicide in the final scenes, there are shaking heads and moist eyes all around.
The poignant part is that the audience is not composed of your average cosmopolitan art film buffs: These are working-class men who earn a living producing copies of Van Gogh’s paintings in workshops in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. A beautifully shot, well-structured and moving story about art, work and the human spirit, the film should have a good shot at niche release, with ancillary action to follow.
After bowing at IDFA in Amsterdam – where the directors first pitched their project in 2014 and received distribution subsidies last year – Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu have subsequently toured European and North American festivals before returning home with shows at Beijing and then last week’s appearance at Xining’s First International Film Festival.
China’s Van Goghs doesn’t simply dwell on the differences between these 21st-century Chinese workers and the 19th-century Dutch maestro; its insight is that they are kindred spirits separated merely by time, geography and social class. Veering sharply away from the stereotype of Chinese laborers as a faceless mass seeking a better quality of life, China’s Van Goghs explores their desire for spiritual fulfilment too.
True, the beginning of the film could pass for a straightforward account of how these self-learned painters run fairly small family operations that have produced hundreds of thousands of cheap Van Gogh replicas over the past three decades. But slowly, the filmmakers show their protagonists as bona fide artists, struggling like Van Gogh to find their creative voices and realize their vision beyond their own economic and social circumstances.
The action takes place in Dafen, the country’s biggest “oil painting village”. Established in 1989 by a Hong Kong businessman, the commune has grown from humble roots (200 workers) to a hub hosting around 10,000 people responsible for a yearly turnover of $65 million. This business provides department stores and souvenir shops around the world with replicas, and ironically the Dutch are a major part of that clientele.