The Hazy Days of Art College 1994

The Hazy Days of Art College 1994

©Courtesy of Dekanalog

Like many young people, the Chinese art students in this film largely ignore politics. Very few of them could have conscious memories of the Cultural Revolution, unlike superstar Chinese artists Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Wang Guangyi. However, these artists-in-training consciously aspire to their level of success. They also hope to make reasonably meaningful art in Liu Jian’s animated feature, “Art College 1994,” which opens Friday in New York.

You never hear any references to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in this sleepy arts college, even though it only happened five years ago. In fact, any form of news from the outside world rarely intrudes into their little bubble. Yet, Western cultural influences abound. Zhang Xiaojun is obsessed with Kurt Cobain, while his friends fervently discuss the “Godfather” trilogy and read D.H. Lawrence.

His buddy, Dai Zhifei, a.k.a. Rabbit, is much less intellectually inclined, but that is probably why Zhang chose him as his sidekick. They are also collaborating on a canvas together, despite their competing Western oil-painting and traditional Chinese styles. For years, their school has been amenable to both creative approaches, but it is just starting to favor Chinese forms over those from the West.

Art College 1994©Courtesy of Dekanalog

With the benefit of hindsight, viewers should recognize this as a period of transition, for Zhang’s school and Chinese society in general. However, he and his classmates do not see it that way. They are more preoccupied with women, booze, and at least to some extent their art. In fact, Zhang is quite interested in Hao Lili, a piano student living on-campus with Gao Hong, an opera student, who has already developed a diva-like personality.

Gao clearly considers the broodingly passionate Zhang a better match for Hao, but her accompanist has already resigned herself to an arranged match with Wu Yingjun, a boring business student at a neighboring university. Somehow, Hao understands Wu better represents the future of China, for better or worse.

Art College 1994” is probably the most verbose animated feature since Linklater’s “Waking Life.” It also represents a dramatic change of pace from Liu’s previous feature, “Have a Nice Day,” an edgy noir caper that so unflatteringly depicted the violence and materialism in contemporary Chinese society, the state censors prevented its scheduled screening at Cannes.

In contrast, social criticism so scrupulously avoided in “Art College,” it is almost conspicuous its absence. Liu’s film is also rather emotionally subdued, so it is not likely to satisfy anyone looking for an overheated campus melodrama. Yet, its characters are still quite hopeful. They are often neurotic, but never woeful or depressed.

Instead, “Art College 1994” is primarily concerned with nostalgia for all-night binge-drinking and pretentious dorm room philosophy debates. Liu definitely presents them both as rather self-indulgent pursuits that he expects many viewers fondly miss participating in. Regardless, the film’s wistful, bittersweet spirit will win over viewers who are receptive to its talkiness.

Art College 1994 3

©Courtesy of Dekanalog

Indeed, throughout “Art College 1994” most viewers will wonder what fates lie in store for these bright, ambitious artists, Liu depicts in the full promise of their youth. The film leans unreservedly into nostalgia, which works, to a large degree.

The warm sunny visuals also contribute greatly to the vibe of summer days gone by. Liu’s campus landscapes are surprisingly lush. His deceptively simple character designs convey a lot of personality. (They have a look and feel very much akin to that of the characters in Yeon Sang-ho’s Korean animated films, such as “Seoul Station.)

Serious patrons of Asian cinema will also be amused to know acclaimed Chinese independent auteur Jia Zhang-ke lends his voice to Gu Yongqing, a distinguished alumnus, who returns to the art college as a guest lecturer. Filmmaker Bi Gan (probably best-known for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” also voices the role of fellow student Luo Hao, a.k.a. “Chubster” (he is easy to recognize). Plus, Jia’s regularly collaborator Wang Hongwei plays two college faculty members: an eccentric professor and the authoritarian department chair.

Fortunately for New Yorkers, the Metrograph will also be screening “Have a Nice Day” concurrently with “Art College 1994.” Together, the two films illustrate Liu’s range and his observant eye. The former is a blistering masterwork of socially conscious animation, while his newest release is an interesting minor work from the talented animator. “Have a Nice Day” is a must see (it also currently streams on Tubi and Kanopy). “Art College 1994” does not have the same visceral energy, but it still proves animation can be a thoughtful medium for adult drama when it opens this Friday (4/26).

Grade: B-

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Here’s the trailer of the film. 

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