Chung Kuo China
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(Mar 05, 2012)
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The course charted by Michelangelo Antonioni in Chung Kuo China presents unforgettable glimpses of one of the world's richest cultures. Although he visits familiar sights such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the film's focus is fixed towards the people themselves. Across China, from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to the Henan province, people struggle amidst poverty and hardship to sustain the collective revolutionary spirit that liberated them. Chung Kuo is an indelible time capsule of the aftermath of Mao's Cultural Revolution, the defining event of Modern China. Despite receiving the direct support of the Chinese Communist Party during production, Chung Kuo provoked a strong backlash on its initial release, earning rebuke from Mao Zedong himself. While well received in the West, the film did not find its intended audience until its 2004 screening at the Beijing Cinema Institute. One of Antonioni's most innovative works, formerly languishing as a prized object in cinema archives, Chung Kuo China's vision achieves greater resonance in the 21st Century than the time of its release.
Among Antonioni's finest documentary achievements --A History of Narative Film
A work that manifested, from the start, an attitude of warm and cordial participation in the great event of the Chinese people --Umberto Eco
Inspirational... Antonioni's images simply mean more than any images the Chinese release of themselves --Susan Sontag
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In documenting what he refers to as "mundane daily activity", Antonioni films the people as he finds them, with much attention paid to lingering shots of individual faces, ignoring one town governor's hasty attempts to force elderly residents out of the camera's sightlines,frantically insisting that everything be captured "properly".For all the sequences of immaculately behaved children reciting songs about the wonders of collectivism, it was a single shot of them running into the playground with which the censors took umbrage, at odds with the studious picture of youth they wished to present.He filmed structures like bridges more poetically.By playing around with imagery the Chinese saw him as destroying the propaganda of stability . Each section of Chung Kuo China takes in a different city or province on the crew's journey, beginning in Tiananmen Square (where we first hear the film's title theme "We Love Tiananmen Square") and ending in Shanghai. Antonioni is quick to admit that his portrait of China barely scratches the surface, quoting an old Chinese saying that "You can depict a Tiger's skin, but not its heart", but he's clearly seduced by the country's natural beauty, especially as the control exerted by his chaperones appears to loosen the further from Beijing they travel.People do Tai Chi exercises in squares.
Some of the best footage comes when travelling through the Henan Province, especially when the crew have to jump from a moving vehicle to capture the rare instance of a private market in full swing, despite their guides' futile attempts to stop them. The network of canals that make up Suzhou City provide some of the most beautiful imagery in the film, whilst a stop at China's largest factory recalls the industrial landscapes of Il Deserto Rosso (1964), but it's a ghost town of straw huts in the centre of Shanghai, left to commemorate the Sino-Japanese war, that prove the most eerily evocative. "For one fourth of the earth's population, we're so unfamiliar that it fills us with awe", the narration says, and one gets the impression that Antonioni is aware of the cultural importance of such privileged access to what would remain a closed world for years to come, "China has opened its doors, but still remains a distant and largely unknown world".With the restless curiosity of Marco Polo Antonioni tenderly takes in the faces of this alien world in tea houses and restaurants,street scenes where bicycles tinkle and on boats,he also illegally captures a war-ship briefly.This important pre-Capitalist China is an important social document of a lost era.There are some scratches to the film and the 3 parts are all compressed on one disc.You feel this revolution has met its match in a director who respects the collectivist vision in reducing malnutrition.No extras.In colour.
It is actually pretty amazing that so much of this film just shows the regular events one sees in from the street and the many expressions of the people who happen to be there at the time. So this documentary manages to show the mundane in an interesting way. The narration helps us understand what is occurring and the historical importance of what we are viewing. I have to add that there were actually escorts accompanying Antonioni and his crew when they made this movie. The escorts always remain off camera, but told them where they can and cannot film (and some of what they were told not to film they did anyway). If anything, we also get a good taste of communism and the culture that goes with it. China still embraces its past and we get to see a few things that might only occur there and no where else on earth (like acupuncture using huge needles for pain control during birth or groups of people moving their body like they are practicing martial arts out in the public).
I have to admit I like Antonioni's style, so it isn't a surprise for me that I found this film to be so enjoyable. Chung Kuo is a documentary that provides us with a chance to draw our own conclusions about what we see. The film is broken up into three parts providing us a good point to stop in case taking it all in in one sitting is too much. By the end of this nearly four-hour film, although we may not feel like an expert, we will have a much richer appreciation and knowledge of the noble land called China.