DVD Chung Kuo – China
“We’re not pretending to understand china,” the opening words of the culturally noteworthy film, from famed Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, understate the significance of this masterwork of social documentary. Chung Kuo – Cina (renamed China for this UK release) is an attempt to understand China from a shamelessly European perspective. In an age when mobile phone images and CCTV footage prevail, here we hark back to a documentary film crew attempting to extend the clearly designated boundaries and reach just a little further for a true unimpaired vision.
The film consists of three parts. The first taking place in the crowded streets around Peking with prolonged close-ups, capturing the inquisitive faces of the working classes. In the cotton factory, the labourers work diligently in their assembly line. At home, couples prepare a modest dinner. In school, students memorize drills and walk in line. The film illustrates devotion to order, community, and a pre-destined way of life.
Antonioni has a proclivity for allowing shots to breath for an uncomfortable length of time. His goal is ambitious: to record reality in its true form. Life in China does not move in fast cuts, so neither does the lens that views it. Antonioni also refuses to deny his audience any attempt to settle in comfortably. One gory scene at a Chinese clinic documents a Caesarean operation performed under traditional acupuncture anaesthetic. Here, he succeeds at revealing a truly raw human moment.
Part two visits distinctively rural settings at the Red Flag canal, a commune in Henan, and the beautiful ancient city of Suzhou. This portion of the film pays respect to the colourful and plentiful agriculture of middle China. Ancient gardens and rural villages paint an interesting contrast to the unnervingly regimented urban cities. Antonioni wonderfully takes his time to illustrate how the inhabitants in the rural areas may be poor but are by no means destitute. The most touching subjects remain the ever-happy children, who sing and dance in a spirit that feels free of the political agenda that informs their urban counterparts.
The third and final section steams into the bustling industrial ports of urban Shanghai. The unbiased cinematography captures a dreary setting that makes no attempt to sugar coat what is clearly a very tough existence for the people who live and work here. The natural sound of the traffic is loud and irritating, but it sounds depressingly authentic. This dreary noise is accompanied by Antonioni’s abrasive choice of musical companion, which plays out this investigation with the high-pitched tones of a record dedicated to the glorious leader Chairman Mao…
The vast geographical size and unfathomable population of the world’s greatest rising superpower has only ever been matched by the curiosity towards life in this far Eastern empire. However it has only been in the last century this gigantic and fascinating country has been opened up to the world. To be precise, it was during the ‘70s that China finally – debatably – opened its doors fully to the people of the world and this is when Italian film maker Michelangelo Antonioni ventured into the land of unknown that was Communist China in 1972 and created Chung Kuo- Cina.
By this point in time, Antonioni was an Oscar nominated director for Blow-Up, starring Vanessa Redgrave, and clearly this man’s curiosity could not resist this opportunity to film and visit China at a time when Westerners knew so little about the people and culture of this introverted country.
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 attempting to stamp out). However, the most striking aspect of the film is the powerful simplicity of the relationship between the camera and the people who curiously stare back at it.
Such is the overbearing presence of the nervous hosts, Antonioni must resort to hiding his camera in certain areas.
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 modestly states 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…
Such is the overbearing presence of the nervous hosts, at many times, Antonioni must resort to hiding his camera in certain areas as he is restricted to where he goes and what he can shoot. The crew appointed ‘chauffer’ often makes people come out into the street, hiding away old or sick members of the community to give a more positive viewing of the people as a whole. This distasteful side of China had never truly been seen on film before this point.
Unfortunately, the film appears to have suffered irrevocable print damage, exhibiting serious grain and infrequent flickering issues. Antonioni’s compositions can be quite striking, but this poor transfer detracts from them – the damage here has built over years of obvious negligence. The sound mix, however, is crisp and clear. Perhaps most baffling is the complete lack of extras. There’s a fascinating story behind the making of Chung Kuo – Cina, and yet nothing here which tells its tale, which is a real shame.
As much as the entirety of the film shows off the beauty, wonder and monuments of this vast and extravagant country, it is truly the people of China that make the documentary so interesting. Antonioni comments throughout that although the Chinese are controlled under a strict government, no-one seems unhappy. The protagonists are in fact content with their lives, which poses many interesting questions on ignorance, control, class, system, culture and just who has it correct.
Unfortunately a modern equivalent of Cina has not yet been made and, after Antonioni’s exploits, it is highly doubtful it ever will. Such is the majesty of the director’s human intimacy and penchant for mistakenly capturing an uninvited sneak that Cina will remain undoubtedly important as the film that finally introduced China and its fascinating peoples to a Western audience.
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