Chung Kuo - China Review

In 1972 Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary on China for Italian television. The project fell between two of his most high-profile features: Zabriskie Point, released in 1970, which was the director’s first US production; and The Passenger from 1975, which had Jack Nicholson occupying its lead role. Yet this was no mere stop-gap, but rather a major undertaking in its own right. Chung Kuo China has a running time of three-and-a-half hours, its original format being that of a three-part mini-series screened over consecutive weeks, each with a length of between 60 and 80 minutes. Furthermore the subject matter itself was one barely disclosed to audiences in the West in 1972. It was a big deal to make a film about China, all the more so given that it was directed by a filmmaker as highly regarded as Antonioni. Whilst, forty years down the line, it may be easier and somewhat more common to film in the country (as I type Channel 4 is heavily trailing their forthcoming doc, Gok Wan: Made in China), that statement remains just as true today.

Chung Kuo lays down its intent early, through the voice-over narration that peppers the entirety of its running time. Antonioni and his crew did not make this documentary as means of understanding China or its people. Instead they intended solely to “present a large collection of faces, gestures, customs”. Their camera simply observes as it captures a beginning of a school day, for example, or surgery being performed at a hospital. In this respect Chung Kuo could be said to be apolitical: the narration remains resolutely matter-of-fact, refusing to apply any spin to scenes or sequences; the camera seems as interested in an example of political art as it a gymnastic display or the everyday comings-and-goings of a busy street. Everything is new to the filmmakers and, on its original transmission, everything would have been new to much of its audience. As a result there is no need for Antonioni to impose too much on the material outside of providing a structure rigorous enough to sustain three individual feature-length episodes. Showing is enough.

Indeed, a huge part of Chung Kuo is made up of concerns such as showing us how, for example, the population interacts with each other, how they dress and how they react to being filmed. If there is an emphasis to be discerned that it is on the basics: living conditions, working conditions, and so on, with the expected comparisons to be made between those from rural areas and those who live in the cities. Antonioni is also sure to encompass those elements of China with which a general audience would be familiar. Thus we open in Tiananmen Square and later move onto Shanghai, the Yangtze River and, of course, the Great Wall of China, each of which receives the relevant background, context and trivia through the voice-over narration. Similarly, the high number of bicycles and the ever-present visage of Chairman Mao are also addressed. There is also as much an emphasis on the past (whether it be ancient teachings, historical fact or superstition) as there is the present day, inferring that the two are of equal importance to both the country as a whole and its leader.

Inference is the key word given Antonioni’s reluctance to impose. For all that background provided by the narration, more often that not we are left without a guide and asked simply to observe. The matter-of-fact nature of the voice-over is such that it has nothing to say once the salient information has been delivered - identifying where we are and other key points - and so it remains quiet. The only time it switches from such an approach is to note the filmmaking process itself as when, for example, it is pointed out that filming was halted at a certain point or the reaction of the locals in a given sequence to being captured on celluloid. Such moments also highlight how Antonioni and his crew could only go so far. Whilst they had access, it clearly only went to so far and many doors remained closed to them. However, that’s not to say that Chung Kuo only presents some kind of government endorsed view of China. We nonetheless get eye-opening scenes of rural poverty, the general starkness of peoples’ homes (few adornments beyond the essentials, a portrait of Mao and the Little Red Book) and the many regimented - arguably militaristic - activities no matter how young or old the participants. Despite the even-handedness of Antonioni’s approach and the straight delivery of the voice-over narration, Chung Kuo was immediately banned in China.

It’s tempting to think that part of the reason by this ban was the lack of a Chinese voice to the documentary. There are no interviews and therefore no means of delivering the party line. In fact, there is very little spoken Chinese in general, despite the lengthy running time. (The narration repeatedly informs us that those caught on film were frequently shy and/or diffident.) That which is remains untranslated by either the voice-over or subtitles as though Antonioni was keen to maintain that this was a film was made by outsiders. We understand what he understood, nothing more. Arguably, forty years later this will prompt some viewers to find some dissatisfaction in Chung Kuo owing to its lack of ‘definitiveness’, but such concerns would be misplaced. In the years since we have had television documentaries such as Phil Agland’s much-acclaimed 1994 series for Channel 4, Beyond the Clouds, for example, which offered up a far more rounded (and lengthier) portrait of the country. Similarly we have had those such as Agland’s subsequent Shanghai Vice or the more recent Law of the Dragon (which screened on BBC4 in 2011) which are able to take a particular facet - in these cases, prostitution and the justice system in remote rural areas respectively - and focus in on them in great detail. Our understanding and knowledge of China has grown immensely during those intervening forty years. Yet Chung Kuo remains fascinating for a number of reasons. Whilst it undoubtedly paved the way for Agland and others, this shouldn’t cause us to neglect the wealth of information and detail that it provides on its own terms. It also offers up a rare glimpse of Antonioni working in the documentary form over a significant length (as opposed to the nine minutes of his first film as director, Gente del Po, or the much later shorts made in India and Italy) and to a significantly high standard. The bottom line is that for all the limitations present in trying to make a significant documentary on China in the early seventies, Chung Kuo nonetheless succeeds in being a fine piece of filmmaking.


Chung Kuo China comes to UK DVD courtesy of Mr. Bongo. The 208-minute running time is accommodated by a single dual-layered disc encoded for all regions and without any additions whatsoever. The default setting is to play the entirety from the off, though going through the chapter menu will allow viewers to start at a particular episode. The source clearly shows signs of age with prominent scratches and tramlining throughout, plus intermittent wobble and a general discolouration. Importantly, the detail and clarity remain mostly strong throughout and, as such, things never become less than watchable. (I suspect things would have improved a little more had Mr. Bongo gone for a two-disc edition as per the French set from Carlotta in 2009.) The soundtrack, meanwhile, provides the original mono and Italian voice-over as per its initial television broadcast. Given the simplicity of its approach (live sound interrupted by only intermittent narration - there is no score) the disc copes well. Occasional signs of age do make themselves known, but there are no additional issues resulting from the transfer. English subtitles are optional.

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