It may be hard to imagine now, but in the early 1970s China was as closed off from the rest of the world as North Korea is today.
Very occasionally small groups of well-wishers were invited for carefully scripted tours. They saw only what the government wanted them to see and met only those who would tell them what the government wanted them to hear.
The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1969 had caused a huge upheaval across China and greatly disrupted both economic progress and everyday life in the cities.
By the early 1970s some of China’s rulers were thinking about opening up to the West—for political support against Russia, but also to speed up economic progress.
This was the context in which the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni was invited to China to make a documentary about everyday life there.
Antonioni is today best known for Blowup (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970), two films about the youth rebellion of the 1960s. But he had had a much longer career in Italian film.
Like many radicals of the time, he was sympathetic to Maoism and to the Cultural Revolution. But it’s clear that Antonioni went to China with a fairly open mind.
Chung Kuo China (1972) is the result of that trip—“Chung Kuo” being an old spelling for the Chinese name for China. The Chinese government hated it and launched a ferocious press campaign against the film.
In one sense, it’s not hard to see why. Antonioni is frank at the start of the film about the restrictions placed on him. Parts are shot using secret cameras.
He summed up his feelings fairly early on in the film, saying “The inhabitants of Beijing seem poor but not miserable, without luxury and without hunger.”
But although Antonioni’s film shows a very poor country, his commentary is almost entirely positive.
Historically this is absolutely fascinating. There is very little film of China from this period. It shows dramatically just how much China has changed since then.
There are no great political lessons being drawn. Antonioni’s method seems to have been simply to point the camera at what interested him and leave it running.
His is the only voice on the commentary. There are long periods of silence while the camera just pans over fields or across people’s faces.
But what makes the film so compelling is the wide range of different locations that he shows—including schools, a hospital, a factory, boats on the Yangzi river, a teahouse, and a beautifully surreal acrobat show.
The nearest it comes to political revelations is in the middle section, when he films a free market between two villages. These markets were not supposed to exist. Antonioni notes that their minders did not want it filmed.
What’s more interesting is what’s missing. Almost no one is wearing Mao badges. There is almost no political graffitti and no wall posters. The Cultural Revolution may still be there on the billboards—but it is absent from everyday life.
The film was originally shown in three parts on Italian television. It makes sense to watch it in the same way. The first is set in and around Beijing, the second in the countryside and southern cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, the third in Shanghai.
Anyone who has been to any of those cities will marvel at the transformation. But even if you have never been, this film is well worth seeing just as a picture of a vanished world.
Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo China is available on DVD. Go to www.mrbongo.com