Chinese-born international art star Ai Weiwei thinks of himself more as a chess player than an artist: "My opponent makes a move, I make a move." It is a dry and calculating way of looking at the world, anti-rebellious in spirit though utterly rebellious in form, overtly inspired by the pose of his greatest art influence, the erudite 20th-century gamesman Marcel Duchamp. But Duchamp lived in a liberal democracy in which he was shielded from the authorities by his fans among the very rich. Ai is a celebrity artist. He's best known, however, not for any individual artwork but for being jailed by the Chinese government.
Ai has been exhibiting art since the 1980s, but this documentary (a first by the young American Alison Klayman) is most interested in his cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese government. In recent years, he has published the names of more than 5,000 students killed inside shoddily built government schools during the Sichuan Province earthquake. The government responded by demolishing his new Shanghai studio before he could even start working in it. In 2011, he was beaten about the head and jailed for 81 days, after which he was released and told not to speak out. He soon spoke out.
The best part of the interesting but never quite insightful Never Sorry (really, never?) are the scenes between 55-year-old Ai and his elderly mother. His mother tells the camera, "I feel very proud because he speaks out for the average citizen." She immediately adds, however, "I wish he would just purely be an artist." Her husband was Ai Qing, the poet and dissident who was interned in labor camps for two decades while Ai Weiwei was growing up. Ai Qing plainly inspired Ai Weiwei's life, but one wonders at their differences as much as their similarities. You almost want to see a documentary from Ai Weiwei's mother's perspective—a movie about the whole family—instead.