The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, auteur of soul-sick existential dread, could not have been the government’s first choice to visit China and make a documentary of the early days of the dawn of the Cultural Revolution. But that’s exactly what happened in 1971, a year after Zabriskie Point, his portrait of the death-tripping American counterculture on the skids, was released to mocking disdain, and a year before Richard Nixon’s trip to China was endlessly covered in the popular press.
Conceived by RAI, the Italian public broadcasting company, in collaboration with the Chinese embassy in Rome, the idea was to have a publicly leftist filmmaker of renown come to China and make a film about the benefits of the revolution. At least that’s what some have claimed. What they got was a more idiosyncratic and, in some ways, banal film than anybody had imagined. Chung Kuo—Cina, as the documentary was eventually called — it receives a rare week-long run at MoMA beginning December 30 as part of a larger Antonioni retrospective — is a three-plus-hour travelogue that is more interested in the maneuvering of people in the street, in the choreography of hurried looks and passing glances, than in creating propaganda. It aims to take the view of the traveler in a foreign place for the first time, catching images as they appear with little significance beyond their texture and color and movement through space.
This is stated clearly at the beginning of the film. “We’re not pretending to understand China,” Antonioni says in voice-over. “All we hope for is to present a large collection of faces, gestures, customs.” And he was clearly enraptured with what he was seeing, and felt eager to catch as much of it in the short amount of time he spent traveling from Beijing to Shanghai — over a tightly monitored 22 days, the director shot almost 100,000 feet of film.
The camera feels most natural in the long, middle sections of the film, where the crew travels through parts of the Henan Province and is allowed to linger on domestic scenes, but finds the most energy in Beijing and Shanghai, which bookend the film. Antonioni and his crew are thrown into a city life they are unfamiliar with, bustling with energy. The camera is forced out of its distance, pulled into the crowds. This must have been difficult for Antonioni, who Beverley Walker, a former collaborator, wrote liked “to treat his actors like living pigment.” In the opening moments of Chung Kuo people stare right at the camera, breaking any kind of false objectivity. You can sense the camera beginning to move closer, finding its footing within the bricolage of public space and capturing people through their daily routines.
But Chinese officials thought differently. Not only did they think that Antonioni actually was attempting to understand China, they felt in the process he misunderstood it completely and that his portrait of the country was produced in bad faith. He went searching for things to make them look bad, they claimed; he derided the revolution and in turn the Chinese people. The film was quickly banned, along with the rest of Antonioni’s work, the result of a massive campaign against the director that began, first, in the pages of the People’s Daily newspaper and later in the Peking Review; in 1975, Chinese diplomats unsuccessfully attempted to get the film cancelled before a screening at the Venice Biennale, and event documented by Umberto Eco in his essay “Difficulty of Being Marco Polo” (where he described the attempt at censorship, and the resulting scandal, as a cross “between science fiction and comedy all’Italiana, with a dash of western”). Later, Susan Sontag famously wrote about the film toward the end of her book On Photography, where she claimed the problem had to do with cultural difference in approach to images.
Today, many feel that the film was merely used in an attack led by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, against Premier Zhou Enlai, who reportedly gave special permission to have Antonioni’s crew shoot in China. Diplomats involved in the making of the film were reportedly sent back to China to undergo reeducation (Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew, features Zhu Qiansheng, one of Antonioni’s minders while in Shanghai who became a victim of the campaign against the film). It wasn’t until 2004 that Chung Kuo was screened publically in China, for 800 people at the Beijing Film Academy.
But what to make of Chung Kuo now? Antonioni was certainly making a political film, whether he knew it or not, and much of his voice-over blatantly contradicts any claims of distance: at one moment, he talks about how he asked his handlers to film a funeral, but was denied because they felt it was too personal; he details another moment where they were asked to stop filming, later realizing it was because they were passing the homes of party leaders, which Antonioni’s cameraman shoots anyway. Underlying the entire film is the premise that this is a place that we actively cannot see and that it takes the demystifying camera of a Western filmmaker to explore restricted depths.
Whether this voice-over was part of Antonioni’s original plan is hard to say, as it might have been added as a concession when Chung Kuo aired on television. In 1973, the film aired on Italian public television, and, amazingly, a condensed version even made it to a prime-time slot on ABC on January 11, 1973, bumping the regularly scheduled broadcasts of The Men and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law. This was something, at least for the people who conceived the project, that was meant to appeal to a wide audience and feed expectations. And in some ways, Antonioni gave them what they wanted: a portrait rooted in an inherently orientalist agenda that is deepened by the film’s informal narration. But at the same time, the images speak to another way of looking altogether. Instead of seeking what is not available they record the life that is swirling all around them. And as a series of images of China during this period Chung Kuo is an invaluable document.
Chung Kuo—Cina screens for a week, December 30, 2017 – January 6, 2018 at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, enter on 54th Street, Midtown Manhattan )