Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1972, 208 mins, in Italian with English subtitles
Cast: Michelangelo Antonioni (narration)
Review by Colin Dibben
A controversial, visionary, lost classic of documentary cinema that gives a tantalizing glimpse of life in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In 1972, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the three indisputably great Italian directors of the period, was invited by the Chinese Communist Party to travel around China, filming the things they showed him.
The new Chinese government, fresh from recognition by the United Nations, must have thought this was a grand idea. After all, Antonioni was a leading, left-leaning filmmaker, famous for using controlled camerawork to depict the alienation and icy despair of bourgeois individuals. They must have thought: ‘he’s going to love it over here, help us celebrate the triumph of the Cultural Revolution over all that he has shown to be wrong in his country’. He did love it – but not for their reasons.
In fact, the Chinese were so unhappy about this film that there were demonstrations against it across China. Over one million people took part in these demos and they seem to have been authentically ‘grassroots’. They called Antonioni ‘an anti-China buffoon’.
What was their issue with the film? Essentially, he didn’t want to film the things they wanted him to film, in the way they wanted. He wanted to film people. Some of them are factory workers, some are schoolchildren singing about Helmsman Mao. But there are also many people who are just doing their own thing: sharing ice lollies on a street, sitting in teahouses, blowing their noses or in one case that really annoyed the Party, having a pee in a latrine.
This was a conflict over art’s relationship to politics. The Chinese had a single-minded idea of what constituted good film-making and there was no place in it for the techniques Antonioni used – shooting from moving vans and boats, long pans and angled shots. Or for his preferences in subject matter, which are distinctly unheroic. But there’s an undeniable beauty to the muted colours, the blue serge clothing against sun-bleached buildings and dusty earth, filmed in the dusty yellow light of early morning.
This is an unusual Antonioni film in many respects. The camera pans in a relaxed and meditative way across crowds of people and wide landscapes. It focuses on faces and gives us short glimpses of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things – for instance, a man on a bike doing tai chi. And then there’s the ambient noises that match the gritty visuals perfectly. Often you feel you could be in that busy market yourself with everyone looking at you.
The tension between what Antonioni wants to film and what his Party guides will allow him to film is palpable, especially when the crew jumps from a van to film a ‘free market’ (exactly the sort of thing the Cultural Revolution was trying to stamp out). But the most striking thing about the film is the powerful simplicity of the relationship between the camera and the people who stare back at it. The narration is on the minimal side and there are no words passed between the camera/the crew and their subjects. There’s a constant distance between the camera and the people being filmed, but because these people look straight back at the camera, the effect is strangely intimate. As Antonioni says in the narration, this is a film about faces, gestures and customs. Perhaps, rather presumptuously, Antonioni reads the values of the Chinese people – as opposed to the values of their government – from their faces: modesty, self-restraint, resilience.
The film is in three parts. Part One explores Beijing and its environs, including the Great Wall. Part Two sees the crew in rural Linzhou province as well as in the cities of Suzhou and Nanjing. Part Three concentrates on Shanghai. We see markets, factories, schools, people wandering around great monuments. The film is full of highlights such as people doing tai chi by the Tartar Wall in Beijing; Beijing’s old communal courtyards; the highland town where no-one has ever seen a westerner; a puppet orchestra; a woman undergoing a c-section while ‘anaesthetized’ by acupuncture – she smiles and talks to the doctor as they cut her open!
There’s a lovely, telling scene in an unpaved courtyard outside a rural school. About 20 children are sitting about, reading aloud from books. In this instance, the Chinese were right to protest: the narration suggests the courtyard is the school whereas in fact there were some well-equipped class rooms off the courtyard that Antonioni chose not to film in. And he made the right choice. You go with the best shot, right?
Antonioni is famous for making the normal behavior of rich Italians look strange, alienated. But here, faced with a strange culture, he gives China a very human, sympathetic face: he focuses on the everyday lives of normal working people.
DVD RELEASED 5th March
Chung Kuo China is an indelible time capsule of the aftermath of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the defining event of Modern China.
Language: Italian with English subtitles Certificate: 12
RRP: £12.99 Running Time: 208 Minutes