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November 20, 2011

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Big-name artist in small hometown

WHEN a very famous artist goes back to his small hometown to paint family, friends and locals, the visit can be a little awkward at times. Wang Jie reports on Liu Xiaodong's visit home that is now a documentary film.

Liu Xiaodong is often compared with Lucian Freud as a master of realistic, figurative painting known for portraying ordinary people and their difficult lives without sentimentality, like those of people awaiting the rise of water from the Three Gorges Dam.

Considered one of China's most important painters, Liu joins his subjects and paints swiftly on big canvases or prepared paper, often creating life-size scenes of people at work or rest.

His painting visits to the Three Gorges area and to Thailand were documented by noted Chinese six-generation director Jia Zhangke in the film "Dong" ("East"), which was praised at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. Liu has been the protagonist in other documentaries.

A new documentary "Hometown Boy" follows Liu as he makes his first extended visit back to the small town of Jincheng in Liaoning Province where he paints family, friends and locals in the old paper mill town that has undergone enormous changes.

The 72-minute film, nominated for Best Documentary at the upcoming 48th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, is directed by award-winning Taiwan filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien and produced by the Minsheng Art Museum. The result will come out next Saturday.

"This time I've decided that I am really going home," Liu says. Although he returns for almost every Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year), he hasn't stayed long and says he didn't feel that he'd really been home since he left at age 17. Today he's 48.

Life in the town has always revolved around a paper mill built in the 1950s, and it remains the center of many locals' lives. Some of Liu's old friends have been laid off.

"The director followed me, shared my experience and recorded it," Liu says. "I always dreamed of creating some art in my hometown but I didn't dare to go back because I was afraid I would be treated differently because I become famous."

Liu says he's cautious each time he goes back and visits old friends, noting that his friendships are neither shallow nor deep, "but sincere."

The documentary shows Liu's obvious nervousness as he paints his parents and friends for the first time and his disorientation when he witnesses changes in the town, its expansion, its new tall buildings.

Born in 1963, Liu graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1988. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts at the Madrid Complutense University and also in the United States.

His subjects are ordinary people and they are usually at the bottom of society, such as migrant laborers, factory workers, vendors and prostitutes. His view is unvarnished and sometimes harsh and uncomfortable.

Because of his superb technique and focus on the human form, Liu has been compared to Lucian Freud (1922-2011), one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Chen Danqing, a well-known Chinese artist and critic, said that when he first met Liu in the 1980s in the United States, he was struck by his gift for painting.

Liu recalls that one of his old childhood playmates told him that even as a child Liu had ambitions and predicted, "Though we share the same blue sky as children, we will have different skies when we grow up."

Although they grew up in the same environment, Liu says he feels a little uncomfortable today when he sees his acquaintances caught up in a commercial world. The tension between art and commerce is obvious.

"Today everything is related with commerce; art too is commercialized. I treasure my friends so I feel some difficulty in painting them (the gap in social status between Liu and his ordinary friends make it a bit embarrassing)," he says.

"However, the more time I spent with them, the less concern I felt; they didn't care much about complicated things and we were happy together."

Liu says his series of paintings made in his hometown exemplify his attitude toward art. "Every brushstroke should be candid and sincere, without a trace of art history knowledge."

Director Hou says his purpose in making the film "is to present one fragment I like. Through such a brief fragment, I actually express my larger imagination and vision."

"Hou showed great sensitivity in capturing the relationship between me and my hometown," says Liu.

The artist has worked with other Chinese filmmakers. He was the protagonist in Wang Xiaoshuai's film "The Days" (1990). In 2004, he appeared in "The World" (2005) directed by Jia who focused on the life of the artist.

About Hou Hsiao-hsien

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien and Liu Xiaodong are a good fit. Hou emphasizes improvisation and naturalism. Liu gets close to ordinary subjects and is famous for realism.

Hou was born in Guangdong Province in 1947; his family moved to Taiwan the following year. He studied at the Taiwan Academy of Arts.

Hou is known for minimalist dramas dealing with the upheavals in Taiwan's history over the past century, views through its impact in individuals, families and groups.

His storytelling is elliptical and his style is marked by extreme long takes with minimal camera movement but intricate choreography.

Hou uses extensive improvisation and aims for low-key, naturalistic acting.

A number of his films have won honors at international film festivals, such as those in Venice and Berlin.

Six of his films have been nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

While he is appreciated by film critics his work is rarely seen outside the film festival circuit.


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