China through Antonioni’s lens

Two reviews of Antonioni’s 1974 documentary: “Chung Kuo: Cina

— by Stefanie Schneider —    

For a few yuan, you can get broad noodles and flat breads. The broad noodles, served in soy sauce, are the prototype of fettuccine. It’s hard to accept that Chinese have invented everything, including the fettuccine”. So says Michelangelo Antonioni as he wanders through Suzhou and its so-called “best restaurant in town”.

In 1972, the Chinese government commissioned Antonioni to shoot this documentary, an invitation that was part of a wider move by the Chinese leadership to re-engage diplomatic relations with the West. Also, in an attempt to document the “New China” that was born with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with clear propaganda agenda purposes. On his three-week journey, with the company of a film crew and being strictly supervised by the Chinese authorities, the director got the chance to record what was passing in front of his eyes. He narrates sparingly and impartially.

The result is “Chung Kuo: Cina” – one of the few movie records that shows the country during this period without a politically-prescribed bias. Needless to say, precisely because of the objectivity and Antonioni’s unwillingness to shy away from hard images, the Party vehemently rejected the final result. The three-parts documentary was banned in China until the early 2000s.

Antonioni’s travel was carefully planned as a tour from Beijing to Shanghai. The second part of his work displays his passage in between those two cities, as he describes the domestic life in Nanjing, Suzhou and parts of the countryside in Henan Province. His shots are seen from his Western perspective, and as we hear his calm and chatty Italian narration, the film expresses a sense that a foreign camera has been parachuted into the landscape. Indeed, the camera itself turns into a movie character, and there becomes a curious reciprocal exchange between the local people and the recording machine. The reaction of the Chinese people is as with an alien Western “voyeur” – the camera stares at people and they stare back, or retreat.

chungkuo scene2He embraces a perspective of physical proximity at the same time that he adopts a cultural distance from what is in front of his lens. This tension, built up through the whole documentary, becomes some kind of the director’s perception rather than a mere observation. His fettuccine comment, for example, conveys his disbelief and his possible belief: he is enthusiastic but not won over. He sees some of the rough underbelly, but he is clearly being shown the surface of a Maoist China at a tumultuous period in its history. But as an auteur, he clearly had to insist that his documentary be a very honest work in difficult circumstances.

Through the camera we are presented with different aspects of this unreal reality and in his voiceover, Antonioni stresses how things are uncertain, subjective and undefined. To demonstrate, he uses “face encounters”, but also shows Cultural Revolution-era peasant children practicing regime performances. Admittedly, he shows developed medical methods but also dwells on unscripted, documentary-maker scenes. These “unpredictable” elements are a great part of any documentary and a scene of a pissing pig is enough to capture the reality of a contemporary peasant lifestyle that is worth more than a thousand words.

chungkuo sceneSome scenes are more elaborate than others, and the critique varies… although it is good to know that Antonioni retains an underlying critical judgment. Explaining the un-Maoist relics (500 Buddha statues) in a Suzhou temple, for instance, presents a “museum of the past, preserved as a curiosity”, the narrator tells us that “it’s hard to believe that the religious sentiments have disappeared completely in a country that’s been dominated for hundreds of years by the thoughts and ideas of Buddha and Confucius, and where the Emperor was worshipped as a divine being”.

This sequence, like many others, is mesmerizing, nostalgic and evocative and the film provokes fascination and wonder throughout the film. At the time, however, the responses to “Chung Kuo: Cina” were diverse, primarily provoking “denunciations” and ultimately its banning. Antonioni even earned contemptuous infamy in a Chinese son: “With the Party the whole world will be red and Antonioni will be mad”. He became a target of a massive criticism as part of a national campaign. The film-style, the subject and the reaction to it comes from a different era. Watching it today brings up a feeling of taking a glimpse at another world.

As a big fan of Antonioni’s 1966 film “Blow Up”, it’s difficult not to relate both films stylistically: the long pan shots, the self-awareness, the minimal dialogue, etc. But conversely, the “Chung Kuo: Cina” documentary has a much slower rhythm and narrative. It is a piece of work that brings more questions than answers one of which is: what is a documentary for? Is it just exposing something or also adding and expressing a value? For those keen to enter and contemplate this fragile and rare 3.5 hour world, I can only advise you to be curious, motivated… and to drink lots of coffee.

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chungkuo posterChung Kuo, China
by Clement Deflandre

“Chung Kuo, Cina” by Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni was filmed in 1972 right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. Antonioni was invited as an ally of the New China but simply recording the harsh realities of life on the ground was enough to provoke the ire of the Party. As a result, the film was banned in China until 2004.

The film is in three parts: Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai each lasting around 1.5 hours and this review will concentrate on the middle section that took Antonioni along the peasant tracks, the village roads, along the Grand Canal, crossing the Chinese countryside of Henan and visiting the cities of Suzhou and Nanjing.

Antonioni provides a quiet, sparse narrative voice over the black and white images but the pictures tell the story: shifts between images, decay of walls, peasant agriculture, poverty on people’s faces as a recording of a less developed civilization than ours, before the modern China that has been speedily ushered in over the intervening four decades.

This film is more than an explanation or justification of the regime: more than a paean to the glory of the Maoist regime, the film is a simple photomontage of pre-Opened Up Communist China, showing it to be a little lost and bedraggled. Most of the time, Antonioni is purely factual and descriptive but he also avoids the drifts and the excesses of the Maoist period looking at some of what he describes as the positive aspects of the country. The question remains: which parts are on the insistence of the party and which scenes are the subjective will of the filmmaker? And does this make an objective whole?

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Film available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Il5I7gqWww