Given that this reviewer managed to stay awake for the entire 135 minutes of Chen Uen (千年一問), it feels like the eponymous subject lived much longer than his 58 years. It’s a curious documentary since it was made entirely after Chen Uen (鄭問), the pen name of artist and illustrator Cheng Chin-wen (鄭進文), died of a heart attack in 2017. Viewers only get to know Chen through his vivid artwork and the people he met.
Some old footage of Chen is used, but only sparingly, as he’s mostly portrayed as a silent animation, solemnly strolling through his old haunts and finally visiting his 2018 posthumous exhibition at the National Palace Museum.
Director Wang Wan-jo’s (王婉柔) attention to detail is stunning, fully capturing the essence of the era in each stage of Chen’s life through music, framing, graphic details and recreated scenes. Even the backdrops to the talking heads are carefully designed and at times echo Chen’s artwork, making the entire film a visual feast despite a huge part of it being straight up interviews.
Photo courtesy of Activator Marketing Company
Chen undoubtedly had tremendous talent and deeply inspired the people around him as he moved from venture to venture and locale to locale, and that’s what makes up the bulk of the film. His fantastical, colorful and unrestrained artwork is tastefully brought to life through animations, and his wide range of creative methods are painstakingly recreated, such as splashing ink onto the page out of frustration or searing the paper with a lighter.
To people who knew him, Chen was a man that kept his feelings bottled up. Many say that he was a repressed, reclusive and melancholic soul who never seemed truly happy, and yet seemed to have a passion for life and the people around him. Assistants speak of his extremely high demands, yet fondly recall that he would routinely take them out of the office to smoke cigarettes and stare at the ocean. Despite spending years away from home, once his son expressed interest in following in his father’s footsteps, Chen devoted himself to passing on his techniques.
Fans of Chen will definitely be drawn to the film for obvious reasons, but for this reviewer, who was only vaguely familiar with his work, it induces an aching sense of regret of being too late to the game, even missing the exhibition two years ago, and a strong urge to run to a bookstore and begin poring through his work.
Part of the film’s watchability is the honesty Wang was able to draw out of many of the interviewees — oftentimes homages to a respected artist like Chen would result in an endless gushing and heaping of praise onto the deceased; and while there is indeed a lot of that, they also provide blunt insight into why Chen was not as successful or influential as he could have been. It also reveals some of the secrets of his creative process that more than one interviewee mentions that they would have been “silenced” for spilling if Chen were alive.
The audience gets glimpses of Chen’s personality (besides his unyielding perfectionism to his craft) through such offhand comments, but who he really is remains somewhat of an enigma as he was a man of many contradictions. After viewing the film, we seem to know so much yet so little about Chen as a human being.
One can only wonder what the documentary would have been like if Chen were alive to participate in it, but maybe that doesn’t matter. His artwork probably tells his story the best, painstakingly detailed and exact but also bursting with unbridled energy and expressiveness; a visionary pure artist who in death still remains way ahead of his time.
Directed By:Wang Wan-jo (王婉柔)
Language:Mandarin, Taiwanese and Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles
Running Time:135 Minutes
Taiwan Release:In theaters
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