It’s hard to believe with today’s press freedom, even within former Communist countries, the stir Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo China (1972) caused upon its initial release. In a country still under the crimson shadow of dictator Chairman Mao, it was at the time considered quite a coup for a European filmmaker to gain direct permission and co-operation from the ruling Chinese Communist Party to film in their country.
After its release, and despite the film’s success in the West, Mao backtracked and it was never shown in China until it was screened at the Beijing Cinema Institute in 2004. Watching it now you’re pushed to understand why the Communist Party’s initial enthusiasm turned to antagonism for, if anything, Antonioni’s insightful documentary is never less than reverential, letting the country speak for itself as opposed to leading or directing its people with a preset agenda.
This hands-off approach though, with merely the briefest of voiceovers to explain what is happening, could also be the Chung Kuo China’s undoing. At three hours in length, some of the scenarios could have been shorter instead of, for instance, the filming of a several minute dance sequence by some schoolchildren or a Cesarean birth carried out under anaesthetic by acupuncture – both of which, though fascinating, could have been cut by half without losing any of their impact.
However this is the only quibble with an otherwise mesmerising piece of Chinese and cinematic history. The lack of commentary or interruptions from a film crew or interviewer, allows the country’s visual beauty and the enthusiasm of its people to shine through and speak louder than any amount of unnecessary verbal hyperbole ever could. Visiting such diverse places as a cotton factory in the industrialised Beijing and a farm collective in the outlying rural community of Henan, Antonioni captured the heart of a country closed for centuries to the rest of the world, where the arts and customs of an older China were living hand in hand with a burgeoning new one.
One can’t help feeling the Communist Party missed an opportunity here as by supporting a film like Chung Kuo China, though perhaps not converting the West to their ideology, they would certainly have done their cause no harm.