During his brief, bright lifetime, poet and photographer Ren Hang faced constant criticism and censorship. Deemed consistently obscene in China, his work was torn from galleries and saw him facing arrest; and even when accepted, it was rarely met with the celebration it deserved. It is impossible to know what causes someone to take their own life, but following the line of Ximing Zhang’s intimate and creative portrait of the artist, this harassment can’t have helped. In the film, the toil that both suppression and dismissal takes on an artist who already struggled publicly and transparently with depression is clear to see.

Best known for his nude photographic portraits of his friends, Ren shot largely on cheap film cameras, setting pale, limber and creatively contorted bodies against brightly coloured, unusual props, positioned not to obscure the nudity in the shot but accentuate it, or rather to highlight its normality. “Nudity just happens naturally. It is my life,” Ren says in the film, no longer bemused by the dialogue surrounding his work but beleaguered by it. The film’s centrepiece has him staging a series featuring his subjects nude in public, an act he knows will incense but also one that, to him, is entirely natural. “We just do what we do, I don’t think about any consequences.”

It is here that Ximing’s creatively cut, colourful and visually inventive film comes into its own. One of Ren’s photobooks is titled ‘The Brightest Light Runs Too Fast’, which would also be an apt name for this film. Rather than mourning an artist lost far too young, it energetically and rebelliously showcases the vitality and warmth of him working at his prime, capturing Ren atop a tower block, folding bodies and firing camera flashes, playfully and effortlessly making images that are both entirely ordinary and anything but.

Appeared originally in the London East Asian Film Festival 2018 catalogue.