Chung Kuo China

Chung Kuo China

****

Reviewed by: Neil Mitchell

Forty years after it was first aired as a three-part television series and eight years after it was finally shown by the Beijing Cinema Institute, Michelangelo Antonioni's Chung Kuo China gets a DVD release courtesy of Mr Bongo Films.

The documentary was made at the behest of The People's Republic of China, who invited Antonioni and his small crew to spend two months filming the 'new' China emerging in the wake of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The resulting three-and-a-half hour film, which led an angry Chairman Mao to brand Antonioni anti-China and anti-revolutionary, is a remarkable portrait of an enduringly complex, enigmatic and ancient civilisation in the midst of adapting to Communism.

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Additionally, the film itself is a fascinating historical example of the observational documentary form, similar in feel to the languidly paced films of Frederick Wiseman, as it was practiced before the increasingly subjective, performative mode employed by the likes of Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock became so readily utilised.

Featuring a voice-over commentary by Antonioni that is observant, philosophical and at times gently subversive (rather than explicitly political), Chung Kuo China takes the form of a series of vignettes capturing different aspects of Chinese life as lived in Beijing, the largely agricultural Hanan province, Suzhuo city, Nanjing and Shanghai, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party.

With no soundtrack Antonioni's documentary presents unadorned snapshot images of kindergartens, schools, hospitals, factories and communes that offer the (Western) viewer a glimpse into the everyday workings of a nation in the grip of huge social, political, cultural and economic upheaval. Ethnographic rather than intimate, the film contains striking contrasts throughout - from the symbolic Tienanmen Square and the architectural splendour of the Forbidden City and The Great Wall to the rustic, borderline poverty of the villages of the Hanan Province that are all inhabited by people, who in the face of the camera at the very least, remain inscrutable to the last.

Disciplined, diligent and seemingly serene and contented despite the economic hardships that are self-evident, the real subject of the film, the people, are seen but never interviewed, regarded but not interrogated. Whether it's the fresh faces of the country's youth or the time worn faces of its elderly population on show, China and the Chinese remain an enigma in Antonioni's film, suffused with 'otherness' to Western audiences, something the director points out by intoning the ancient Chinese maxim: "You can depict a tiger's skin, but not its bones. You can depict people's faces, but not their hearts." The quizzical nature of the camera is reciprocated and highlighted throughout by the amused, perturbed or respectful stares that greet it, whether in the industrialised areas of Shanghai or in the agricultural communes of Hanan.

The complexity of the film stems, paradoxically, from its very simplicity. Contrasting images of the country are shown in the sequences shot with the Communist Party's approval and those shot surreptitiously without the film crew's Communist Party chauffeur’s knowledge – the entrance to Mao's extravagant private residence, a private market unsanctioned and deemed a 'marginal phenomenon' by the state, a military ship in the waters around Shanghai. All of these are accompanied by Antonioni's gently probing and reflective commentary, throwing up issues surrounding the veracity of the image of the country portrayed by both its governing elite and by Antonioni himself.

The questions of truth, representation, subjectivity and objectivity define the documentary form, and Antonioni's extraordinary film encapsulates these issues while focusing on one of the world's most 'unknowable' cultures.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2012
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Documentary exploring China in the early 70s, originally shown as a three-part TV series.
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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Writer: Andrea Barbato

Year: 1972

Runtime: 207 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy

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