‘China’s Van Goghs’ (‘Zhong Guo Fan Gao’): Film Review

In ‘China’s Van Goghs,’ Chinese filmmakers Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu probe the angst of a peasant-turned-painter who produces replicas of Van Gogh masterpieces.

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.

The Bottom Line

A profound portrait of a struggling artist.

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 fulfillment, 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.

Zhao Xiaoyong is a peasant farmer who arrived in Shenzhen two decades ago and has since overseen the production, by himself and his family crew, of more than 100,000 copies of Van Gogh’s iconic works. He’s a canny businessman, but he’s also good at what he does: He is very knowledgeable about Van Gogh’s brushwork and is able to spot flaws in his fellow painters’ work that only a specialist could notice. 

Other wannabe Van Goghs also figure, such as Zhou Yongjiu, another farmer-turned-painter who claims to have produced a whopping 300,000 replicas during his time in Shenzhen. But Zhao remains the film’s beating heart, as he talks about how Van Gogh’s emphasis on rural beauty and poverty mirrors his own upbringing.

The directors bring the painters’ link to the land vividly alive when they accompany Zhao as he visits his ancestral village, where farmers still labor like those in Van Gogh’s The Harvest and Zhao’s crinkled grandmother seems like someone straight out of Portrait of a Peasant. In moments like this, China’s Van Goghs truly does justice to its subject.

While shot on HD, there’s nothing TV-like about the images of cramped downtown workshops or rugged rustic landscapes. Nor do the filmmakers ever stoop to cheap sentimentality or melodrama, even during a finale in which Zhao finally realizes his dream and travels to Amsterdam and Arles to look at Van Gogh’s works and milieu first-hand.

He is awed by the real paintings at the Van Gogh Museum and quietly breaks down after the visit. Zhao is dismayed by how his copies are sold as non-descript souvenirs at tacky stalls, and realizes he’s paid a pittance compared to how much they cost in Amsterdam. But he is overjoyed about the praise he receives when he finishes a copy of the Café Terrace at Night in 30 minutes at the exact location where the Dutch artist painted the original in 1888.

Zhao finally finds his calling, as he eventually begins to apply his artistic skills to illustrate the locales he knows and the life he has lived. This chronicle of an artist’s epiphany is what sets the film apart.

Production company: Century Image Media, TrueWorks
Directors: Yu Haibo, Kiki Tianqi Yu
Director of photography: Yu Haibo
Producer: Kiki Tianqi Yu
Executive producers: Yu Haibo, Zhao Lijun
Editors: Soren Ebbe, Tom Hsinming Lin, Axel Skovdal Roelofs
Music: Lukas Julian Lentz
Sound designer: Paul Gies, Ranko Paukovic
Sales: Cat and Docs

In Mandarin, Hunannese, Cantonese and English
83 minutes