Sky Ladder uses the story of him accomplishing a lifelong dream to create a sky ladder - inspired by a Christian tradition of a stairway to heaven (also a 1970s rock anthem). With that story working largely as the bookends, the movie explores his early life prior to and during the Cultural Revolution in China. His father had made their home a centre for artistic discussion as well as himself being a successful painter. Relatively early in his career, Cai moved to Japan and then further afield, especially now that he has become an international art star.
The movie touches on themes such as the influence of traditional Chinese art on his work, his connection with his father and grandmother - both of whom were still alive if very frail at the time of filming, the ethics of working on projects sponsored by the Chinese government such as fireworks at the Beijing Olympics and 2014 APEC conference. Another interesting theme is how to keep your art fresh when the struggle to make it is over - he now has access to significant resources to carry out projects but seeks out obscure artists integrate to integrate their ideas and energy. Visiting one such obscure artist, he comments that ‘compulsive and sincere emotion that should exist in all art’ - in some way that sums up his quest, in some ways harder now that he can easily access financial investment in his artwork.
The highpoint of the movie is definitely the creation of his Sky Ladder at a Chinese fishing village near his family’s ancestral home. It is a thing of wonder and beauty to behold before for the few minutes of its life, stretching 500 metres into the sky just before dawn breaks. The long and quixotic journey to carry out his dream came true. He dedicated the work to his grandmother who would die a month later. Making the project even more challenging was the fact that he hid it from government authorities. The third attempt - England, the United States and then China - finally succeeded.
While the sky ladder theme holds the film together, the abundance of other themes left me wanting for more than soundbites. Although the arc of his career was drawn, I really wanted to hear him speak about his work more in-depth and explain what he has been trying to say through his gunpowder and other works. While there are many times he talks about his life, I really didn’t hear enough about his very original art.