China’s Van Goghs film review: Shenzhen art counterfeiter profiled in surprisingly poignant documentary

This documentary follows a talented Chinese art forger, who claims to have painted 100,000 copies of Vincent van Gogh’s masterpieces, on a trip to Amsterdam, where he gets to see the originals and has an emotional epiphany

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 9:42am

4/5 stars

For years, China has been known as a source of affordable knock-offs of everything from designer labels to, as it turns out, even paintings from the Great Masters. In particular, the Shenzhen neighbourhood of Dafen has blossomed into a cottage industry of “worker-painters”, replicating the world’s most famous works of art in their thousands, which are shipped off to vendors around the world.

Hunan native Zhao Xiaoyong and his family claim to have painted around 100,000 copies of Vincent van Gogh’s classic oil paintings, in a variety of sizes, with painstaking accuracy. Zhao tutors a stable of young proteges and his knowledge of the Dutch man’s technique is without question.

In this documentary, father-daughter filmmakers Yu Haibo and Kiki Yu Tianqi follow Zhao as he prepares for a trip to Amsterdam to meet a pivotal client. Not only will this mark his first trip outside China, but it also represents an opportunity to see Van Gogh’s original paintings first-hand.

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China’s Van Goghs acknowledges the country’s ferociously entrepreneurial spirit, which sees young village wastrels flock to this southern metropolis to replicate sunflowers and cornfields day and night. However, it also recognises Zhao’s own artistic merit, chronicling his ongoing struggle between creating bankable produce and pursuing his own creative ambitions.

When Zhao does make it to the Netherlands, few could have foreseen the existential crisis that follows, as he discovers the harsh reality of his work and its true value in the global marketplace. The result is a documentary of unexpected emotional power and a tale of inspiration found through imitation.

China’s Van Goghs opens on April 21

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