Liu Jian follows up ‘Have A Nice Day’ with this picture postcard from China during the seismic 1990s

Art College 1994

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Art College 1994’

Dir: Liu Jian. China. 2023. 118 mins.

The early 1990s mark a time of seismic change in China. The reform of everything from economic models to ways of thinking and creating is underway, met by an influx of Western influences. Tradition and modernity are in collision. The campus of the Chinese Southern Academy of Arts is a microcosm of the radical shifts in wider society. And the art students have plenty to say about it, in this talky, meandering animation from Liu Jian.

The students have an awful lot of theories about art, but rarely get around to finishing any of it

The follow-up to Have A Nice Day, Art College 1994 reprises both the distinctive 2D animation style of its predecessor and the loose, episodic approach to storytelling. It evokes a specific time and a place so vividly that you can almost taste the stale cigarette smoke and cheap beer. But while the picture affectionately skewers the youthful pretensions of the aspiring artists, it also allows the students an overly generous space in which to pontificate and navel-gaze.

The film has an autobiographical element: Liu, like the central character Xiaojun (Dong Zijian) majored in Chinese painting but gravitated towards contemporary art after his graduation in 1993. His animation feature directing debut came in 2010 with Piercing I, which premiered at Annecy and won Best Animation at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. His second feature, the gritty, cynical crime picture Have A Nice Day, premiered in competition in Berlin in 2017, and won prizes at Fantasia, Golden Horse and Pingyao festival, among others. Art College 1994 should enjoy a similarly healthy festival run but, without the genre hook of Have A Nice Day might prove to be a tougher sell to distributors. Domestically, the collective star power of the voice cast, which includes actors Dong Zijian and Zhou Dongyu, comedian and internet phenomenon Papi Jiang as well as directors Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan, should ensure interest. 

We are introduced to cool, floppy-fringed Xiaojun and his garrulous friend Rabbit (Chizi) as they collaborate on a painting (a work that bears striking similarities to the grinning self-portraits of Chinese artist Yue Minjun). But the finished work is vandalised by a fellow student, and Xiaojun and Rabbit find themselves facing disciplinary action after they ambush the perpetrator.

Meanwhile music major Lili (Zhou) and her brash, opinionated friend Hong (Jiang) dream of performing at a concert together, and go on half-hearted dates with boys from the nearby university. There’s a flicker of interest between Xiaojun and Lili, but nothing ever comes of it. Put like this, it seems like a fairly uneventful story. But Liu’s skill lies in creating texture and persuasive details in the characters and the world they inhabit – a world strewn with cigarette butts, abandoned painting projects and a chaotic clutter of ideas about the nature of creativity. 

The students have an awful lot of theories about art, but rarely get around to finishing any of it – becoming something of a running joke in the picture. The film also uses the commercialisation of the art world as a prism through which to view the broader shift in China towards a market-led economy; likewise the debate about modernity versus tradition in the art world, a battle that finds a parallel in wider society. But perhaps the most pertinent message is Rabbit’s claim that anything can be art, something that Liu demonstrates throughout the picture, with the beauty he finds in the banality of the everyday object: the peeling paint, the broken windows, the stag beetle’s futile attempts to scale a wall.

Production company: Nezha Bros. Pictures, Modern Sky Entertainment, China Academy of Art, School of Animation and Game

International sales: Memento International

Producers: Yang Cheng, Shen Lihui, Gao Shiming

Screenplay: Lin Shan, Liu Jian

Animation: Li Jiajia

Editing: Liu Jian

Music: David Wen-Wei Liang, Sun Yunfan, Cui Jian, Alex Liu, Chen Li

Main voice cast: Dong Zijian, Zhou Dongyu, Chizi, Papi Jiang, Huang Bo, Renke, Dapeng, Wang Hongwei, Jia Zhangke, Bai Ke, Bi Gan, Bu Guanjin, Kevin Tsai, Xu Zhiyuan, Peng Lei