Rarely screened and never before available on home video, Michelangelo Antonioni’s epic travelogue documentary Chung Kuo China (1972) was a film mired in controversy from its first unveiling. One can certainly wonder to what extent the filmmaker’s previous feature Zabriskie Point (1970), with its famous ending depicting the symbolic, slow-motion obliteration of capitalist ideals, led the Chinese government to extend an invitation for Antonioni to spend eight weeks documenting the Cultural Revolution. Even if such tenuous preconceptions of shared values were expected to result in a celebratory or at least sympathetic portrayal of the nation, Antonioni’s crew still remained under constant chaperone, ensuring that they didn’t stray too far from the approved path. For all the pre-arranged spectacle organised for the benefit of the director’s crew; the puppet shows and acrobats, propagandistic songs and history lessons, it’s the moments capturing the people of China going about their daily routine in the various cities and provinces that prove most rewarding, the same images which would ultimately contribute to the film’s subsequent condemnation and 32 year ban by Chinese authorities.
It’s fascinating, given Antonioni’s rejection of any political discourse in the narrative of Chung Kuo China that the film would come to be vilified to the extent that it was. Despite an initial screening in Rome which played favourably to the Chinese diplomats in attendance, those in power who positioned themselves against Premier Zhou Enlai’s more liberal, internationalist stance saw matters differently, denouncing Antonioni as having “defamed the revolution and insulted our people”. It seems that the defining reasons for the film’s censure were less a result of any clash over representation of political ideologies, more a very specific, culturally-defined question of aesthetics. In documenting what he refers to as “mundane daily activity”, Antonioni films the people as he finds them, with much attention paid to lingering shots of individual faces, ignoring one town governor’s hasty attempts to force elderly residents out of the camera’s sightlines, frantically insisting that everything be captured “properly”. For all the sequences of immaculately behaved children reciting songs about the wonders of collectivism, it was a single shot of them running into the playground with which the censors took umbrage, at odds with the studious picture of youth they wished to present. It was in crossing beneath the Nanjing Bridge, however, that Antonioni provoked the worst of the authorities’ anger. Describing the 6km bridge as “a magnificent accomplishment” was little recompense for his camera’s sweeping pan as he passed underneath, a depiction that eschewed the static, head-on compositions that denote strength and stability in Chinese propagandistic imagery and iconography for something more poetic, more expressive. Accused of portraying the bridge as un-safe and close to collapse, the eighteen page pamphlet distributed throughout China in 1974 to inform the population of the film’s “true” intentions, stated that Antonioni “racked his brain to get such close-ups in an attempt to distort the people’s image and uglify their spiritual outlook”.
For a film so long unavailable and with such a troubled journey to its eventual Beijing premiere in 2004, it’s a shame that this release should contain nothing by way of contextualisation. Instead the film is presented in its entirety on a single disc, split into three parts as initially aired on television, with no supplementary material. Each section of Chung Kuo China takes in a different city or province on the crew’s journey, beginning in Tiananmen Square (where we first hear the film’s title theme “We Love Tiananmen Square”) and ending in Shanghai. Antonioni is quick to admit that his portrait of China barely scratches the surface, quoting an old Chinese saying that “You can depict a Tiger’s skin, but not its heart”, but he’s clearly seduced by the country’s natural beauty, especially as the control exerted by his chaperones appears to loosen the further from Beijing they travel. Some of the best footage comes when travelling through the Henan Province, especially when the crew have to jump from a moving vehicle to capture the rare instance of a private market in full swing, despite their guides’ futile attempts to stop them. The network of canals that make up Suzhou City provide some of the most beautiful imagery in the film, whilst a stop at China's largest factory recalls the industrial landscapes of Il Deserto Rosso (1964), but it's a ghost town of straw huts in the centre of Shanghai, left to commemorate the Sino-Japanese war, that prove the most eerily evocative.
Antonioni’s gaze displays a restless curiosity, a tenderness as it pauses to take in the faces that populate a world completely alien to his own, and a respect for the achievements of collectivism in reducing malnutrition, even if he can’t quite bring himself to accept that the Chinese invented fettucine. “For one fourth of the earth’s population, we’re so unfamiliar that it fills us with awe”, the narration says, and one gets the impression that Antonioni is aware of the cultural importance of such privileged access to what would remain a closed world for years to come, “China has opened its doors, but still remains a distant and largely unknown world”.
The China of the Cultural Revolution depicted in Antonioni’s film is a world away from the country’s capitalist culture of today and Chung Kuo China remains an important social document. It’s also beautifully cinematic, a time capsule of a lost era and so much more than just a haunting footnote to this masterful filmmaker’s career.
Chung Kuo China - 1972 - Italy / China - 207 mins - Dir : Michelangelo Antonioni
Chung Kuo China is available on dvd now