Ai Weiwei, the artist-provocateur who helped design the "bird's nest" stadium for the Beijing Olympics, was disappeared by the Chinese authorities for 81 days last year (reportedly for "tax evasion"). But he's not just the kind of character to whom we feel obliged to pay attention. He's also an engaging bear of a man whose English is near-perfect (he lived in New York for a decade) and who takes an unalloyed glee in making Beijing crazy. Where this will end for Ai is a question, one that dangles over Alison Klayman's entertaining and polished documentary, a movie that somehow mixes apprehension for Ai with a feeling of warmth and, certainly, fun.
When someone asks the 54-year-old artist if he's become a "brand," he reluctantly admits that he has, but that brand spells resistance and defiance, in both his art and his politics. The former has involved smashing a piece of Han dynasty porcelain, and scrawling "Coca-Cola" on the side of a Neolithic (5,000-3,000 BC) Chinese vase; the latter included his Sichuan earthquake protest, in which he collected the names of more than 5,000 Chinese children killed by shoddy school construction, children Beijing was happy to ignore.
Klayman also follows Ai's Sisyphean court case against the Chinese police who raided his hotel room one night and assaulted him, knowing it will likely get him nowhere, but also knowing that he has to challenge the system or stop complaining about it.
Ai flips off official China, figuratively and literally: The photograph of his middle finger raised at Tiananmen Square has become one of his more iconic images. His presence as an online irritant to an oppressive, authoritarian regime -- Klayman's film is nothing if not a warning to the West -- is both relentless and funny. Whether Ai is one of the braver people around is up to the viewer to decide, but regardless, this is one highly palatable documentary.
PLOT One of China's more prominent artists -- and political agitators -- wages war against his Communist oppressors. RATING R (coarse language, vulgar gesture)
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Feeds the soul as well as the mind. (In English and Mandarin with English subtitles)