Chung Kuo - China DVD
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Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Produced in 1972
Main Language - Italian with English subtitles
Antonioni's perceptive 1972 film about China earned a furious rebuke from Mao Zedong himself - they should have known what they were getting when they invited him, says David Parkinson.
The world was a very different place when Michelangelo Antonioni accepted an invitation to China in the early 1970s. Few Chinese features had reached the West and restrictions on reporting meant that little was known about the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists and ordinary citizens alike. Yet, while Jean-Luc Godard flirted with Maoism in La Chinoise (1967), Antonioni confronted its consequent realities and defied his hosts to keep hidden cameras rolling as he was escorted to show sites chosen to put the most positive spin on a revolution in crisis.
Over the course of eight weeks, Antonioni travelled between bustling cities and sprawling provinces. In Beijing, he alternated trips to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City with visits to well-regimented factories, schools, homes and hospitals, where he recorded the disconcerting use of acupuncture in a Caesarian labour. However, he also shot unsanctioned footage of illegal marketplaces and old women with bound feet and this refusal to follow the Party line persisted on venturing further afield to the Red Flag Canal and the collective farms of Henan, where Antonioni witnessed `happy' peasants beaming their contentment with a simple lifestyle that he recognised as poverty. Still undaunted by polite intimidation, he finally made equally challenging use of the contrasts between the ancient city of Suzhou and the modern metropolis of Shanghai.
Unsurprisingly, when Chairman Mao saw this epic documentary, he castigated it as counter-revolutionary propaganda and commissioned a stylistic denunciation that drew a celebrated response from the critic Susan Sontag in her book On Photography. The Chinese accused Antonioni of shooting the scenes they had stage-managed from too many angles and of deliberately framing imposing edifices to emphasise their flaws. In fact, he had merely followed the tactic employed since his early days in actuality of locating figures in their context and this wholly cinematic, but also intellectually uncompromising appreciation of the socio-political significance of the landscape enabled Antonioni to expose what was supposed to be hidden from him and, ironically, to anticipate the importance placed on environment by such Fifth Generation directors as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.
David Parkinson on 20th February 2012
Author of 191 reviews
In 1972, during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Michelangelo Antonioni was invited by the People's Republic of China to direct a documentary about the New China. His eight-week travels with a crew resulted in a 3 1/2 hour film which presents unforgettable glimpses of one of the world's richest cultures. Although Antonioni visited familiar sights such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the film's gaze 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's vision achieves greater resonance in the 21st Century than the time of its release.
Publisher: Mr Bongo
Length: 208 mins
Cat No: MRBDVD044
Format: DVD Colour