Home Video Hovel- Chung Kuo China
In 1972, the year Nixon and the Olympics went to China, legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, L’Avventura, The Passenger) was also invited by the Chairman himself to show the world the truth of life behind the Great Wall. When Antonioni returned, he had a three-and-a-half hour look at the house that Mao built. It is at the same time both engrossing and hard to watch. Now available on DVD, this is a film ripe with fascinating sights and insights, but keep in mind that this is still as dry as 208 minute stare down of a Mandarin culture by a modernist Itallian artist can be.
Chung Kuo China is first and foremost a time capsule of Chinese society and daily life in 1972. This DVD from Mr. Bongo studio is not remastered, restored, or in any way improved. For good or ill the print is scratched and pale, and feels like a film from the ‘70s that’s been sitting on a back shelf for too many years. The extra features are as simple as you might imagine (a standard chapter selection). What it lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in its original, raw, length. This film is as fascinating for what it contains, as for what is absent.
Where other documentaries make a point of cramming as many talking heads as possible, often pulling in the director as a pseudo-star, this film is not about interviews. This is a film about looking at people going about their daily lives. On the other hand, Italian modernist, and self-described “Marxist intellectual,” Michelangelo Antonioni does duty as the documentarian deus, with comprehensive narration that’s one part Werner Herzog and one part Will Lyman. While the film doesn’t really take the time to talk to its subjects in depth, it does give its audience more of a chance to draw its own conclusions.
There are many long distance shots of people merely existing as part of the larger China. There are the more pedestrian sights; watching workers doing Tai Chi while biking down the street to their jobs at the cotton factory, merchants chopping ducks in their various gristly bits, and farmers working at the daily grind of their farm collective. Then there are the more wild moments involving complex acrobatics, illegal farmer’s markets, and a very graphic look at a cesarean performed under only acupunctural anesthesia.
Throughout the filming director/narrator Antonioni tells us that he’s dealing with two issues: people who have never seen Westerners (especially with cameras), and his government approved handlers that are discouraging, preventing, and guiding all of his footage. Mao Zedong is firmly in charge, and while his guiding hand can be felt throughout, there are sneaky shots of other bits and pieces of life in Red China. This film is built on a spine composed of long, silent, shots of the people of Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai, and Henan: but the real depth of the film comes from the occasional stolen views, and sniper-like shots of the people who try to hide from his lens.
After seeing the completed film, Mao reportedly disliked it, charged the director with being anti-Chinese, and banned it’s showing in China. So, instead of Chung Kuo China being an eye opening first look at day to day life in Communist China, it has gone largely unseen by either Eastern or Western audiences, and this may be the first time many Americans will get a chance to see this documentary.
Chung Kuo China is worth checking out for anyone with an inquisitive soul: but it’s hard to give it a rave recommendation (especially in this shelf-worn iteration) unless you have a dedicated curiosity in either China or the work of Antonioni.