As a result, you would expect a film about the people who paint Vincent van Gogh replicas in the Dafen village – the world’s largest oil painting village – to fall somewhere between these narrative lines.
But, surprisingly, Haibo and Kiki’s debut documentary is not the usual depiction of hardship or even of the oddity of wanting to copy Western art. Instead, it tells the personal story of Zhao Xiaoyong, a self-made painter who found a way out of poverty through mastering a skill: Xiaoyong has painted which, over the last two decades, has seen a growing demand.
Dafen village was founded in 1988 by Hong Kong businessman Huang Jiang. To start with, there were only 20 painters. But, over time the village expanded. In 2015, it turned over 65 million dollar, with more than 10.000 painters currently working there, many of whom peasants-turned oil-painters, just like Zhao Xiaoyong.
Alongside members of his family, Xiaoyong owns a painting shop specialising in van Gogh. The shop is not a creative space, but a business. Many people are painting day and night to meet the deadlines, and the pressure and hard work do not seem any different to sewing jeans or checking ironing machines on a factory line.
However, working in Dafen differs from working in a factory. There is a contrast in people’s self-perception and the type of competition that exist between them. In Dafen, a new niche market means a change from painting naturalist replicas to impressionist ones. Everyone looks at what the others are doing and how far it gets them, just like in the art world.
Starting from the scenes that portray the atmosphere and the dynamics of the work itself, the spotlight soon turns on Xiaoyong himself. As creating replicas of original artworks is generally not considered art, nobody would imagine that Xiaoyong considers himself an artist. But he does. It soon becomes clear that his life and inner explorations make him an unusual version of what one would imagine a ‘real artist’ to be. Only, he is not consumed by a desire to create something original, but by a desire to enter van Gogh’s mind.
The film portrays a personal struggle in contemporary China that is not about money or status, but rather about existence and meaning. Xiaoyong’s passion borders an obsession. He tries to imagine the painter’s thoughts and feelings, and he can recount a vision-like dream in which Vincent van Gogh asked him what it was like to paint like him. ‘I have almost entered your world now’ he replied in his dream. So, when a long time Amsterdam client invites him to visit, Xiaoyong sees a real opportunity to explore what remains of van Gogh’s world.
But, the experience of experiencing the Dutch painter’s work in real life and visiting the places where van Gogh lived and worked has an unexpected effect on Xiaoyong. Instead of feeling inspired, it makes him question himself. If, in the beginning, his work seemed to give him meaning, he now asks himself whether he really is an artist? And if not, what is he?
Xiaoyong’s self-doubt marks a turning point in the film. Looking down on the craft of copying paintings seemed the viewer’s natural standpoint at the start of the film, but as the story develops, it becomes clear that this repetitive and precise craft is what made Xiaoyong believe in himself, develop and overcome his condition. It made him dream and imagine the thoughts and ideas that inspired the originals. This loss of heart makes the viewer empathise with him. His self-doubt is a measure of how important this work is to him and through this very twist, the film challenges the notion of authenticity. It shows that authentic passion for something so inauthentic is possible. Eventually, it makes one wonder what is art other than something that makes you look at life in a new way? Is that not precisely what learning to make van Gogh replicas did for a peasant such as Xiaoyong?