“Some of Cai Guo-Qiang’s art exists for mere moments. But my, how long it sticks in the mind.” New York Times movie reviewer Ken Jaworowski said it better than I ever could have. It’s taken me about a week to process the film before I could begin to write about it. The whole of it is simply beautiful. Beautifully shot, beautifully edited, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the story told was nothing short of inspiring.
Sky Ladder follows the journey of Chinese pyrotechnical artist Cai Guo-Qiang attempting to enact his most ambitious fireworks display of his life. The movie opens with him discussing one of his other crowning achievements, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony. As we find out in the film, it’s been a long journey for Mr. Guo-Qiang, as he was born in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, an especially difficult time to grow up in China and a time not especially welcome to personal expression. His work isn’t limited to the burning of tiny colorful pellets, as he is clearly an artist of movement, as seen in some of his wilder gallery exhibits.
One of the most fascinating pieces of the documentary was when Cai was seeking approval for a smaller regional show from the local Chinese Communist Party officials. It was a bunch of old men sitting around a large table smoking cigarettes discussing the political merits (or otherwise) of his requested show. I had heard of similar meetings from Chinese friends before but it was surreal to see it on screen. Similarly, I found it especially fascinating to see the workshop where Mr. Guo-Qiang’s fireworks are made as it doesn’t look like the methodology isn’t far off from the original fireworks utilized in 7th century China, the home of gunpowder its more aesthetically pleasing cousin, fireworks.
On the whole, I can’t recommend Sky Ladder enough. There is an especially touching line in the film dealing with his relationship with his grandmother and father that I won’t taint with my words. Mr. Guo-Qiang’s life story, his connection to his family, his globetrotting exhibitions, and the beautiful cinematography left me with a taste of the what it felt like blowing up fireworks for the first time as a kid. In a way, I felt the kinship of a human story and the wonder of a world more grand than I thought.