Journey to the East

Nick Pinkerton on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo—Cina (China)

Michelangelo Antonioni during the shooting of Chung Kuo, China in 1972. Courtesy Photographic Archive of Rai Teche.

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI ARRIVED IN CHINA IN MAY OF 1972, about seven hundred years after Marco Polo and a few months after Richard Milhous Nixon. The People’s Republic of China, established in 1949, was then coming out of more than a decade-long period of almost total diplomatic estrangement, the thaw overseen by premier Zhou Enlai with the permission of the sick, senescent, and increasingly erratic Mao Zedong after the official close of the morally and materially catastrophic Cultural Revolution. During the preceding period of isolation, precious few images of China had been seen abroad, and so the opportunity being afforded to Antonioni was a unique one. He was then fifty-nine years old and one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet.

Traveling with his sound recordist, Giorgio Pallotta, his assistant director (and later wife), Enrica Fico, his cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, and a lightweight 16-mm Eclair NPR camera, Antonioni set off on an itinerary that took the group from Beijing in the northeast through rural Linxian (present-day Linzhou) in Henan Province and the Yangtze River cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, before finally ending in Shanghai. The footage yield of their trip was edited into three parts, each more than an hour long. The first stays in Beijing and its precincts, including visits to the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven and an excursion to the Great Wall. The second begins in inland Linzhou and moves back toward the east coast. The third part lands in a Shanghai that is both familiar and not: The historic buildings of the Bund look quite like they did in 1935, but the mega-skyscrapers have not yet begun to rise across the Huangpu River. All three episodes were aired on Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Italy’s state-owned television station, which was also then underwriting Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of austere historical films, works that stand among the least-seen major productions by a famous director. Antonioni’s Chung Kuo—Cina (China) (1972) is another such film.

The capstone of the Museum of Modern Art’s complete Antonioni retrospective has been a weeklong stand of Chung Kuo—Cina, consisting of six separate marathon screenings of an untrammeled 35-mm print. I don’t know how this should be possible of a movie shot with available light on Super 16, but the finished film looks Italian, all soft pastels straight from a quattrocento fresco. Said Fico of her late husband in a 2013 interview, “He was fascinated by Maoist clothes, their blue colors and worn-out textures; he zoomed in on the clothes to discover their elegant, yet dusty, colors.”

Antonioni had been brought to admire the miraculous monuments of the People’s Republic, but his attention to the Great Leap Forward–era engineering marvel of the Red Flag Canal or the newly open Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in the second episode are dutiful at best—here, as throughout, he can’t seem to hide the fact that the feats of Chinese engineering he most reveres are hundreds if not thousands of years old, as when the narration, written by Andrea Barbato and read by the director, rhapsodizes over the “remarkable beauty” of the canal-gridded Suzhou. More than anything, Antonioni is interested in the prosaic life of the Chinese people, the unstructured quotidian activities unfolding on the worn fringes of his highly structured tour. The film’s perspective is decidedly, even defiantly, fixed as that of an outsider, mutely meeting and holding the curious gazes of passersby, one after another. The Chinese dialogue isn’t subtitled, and all information is filtered through Barbato’s commentary, which summarizes the line fed to the visitors by officials and offers Antonioni’s party’s own unofficial observations when veering off the appointed course to, say, visit a farmer’s market to find some small piece of the old individual entrepreneurial spirit surviving in the form of bartering. In eschewing interviews, Chung Kuo—Cina differs markedly from Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens’s 763-minute documentary behemoth How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976), but the reason for Antonioni’s tactic is clear. He trusts the testimony of the camera-eye to tell him something that no vetted and overseen interview will. Barbato later provides a final disclaimer, drawn from a Chinese proverb: “You can depict a tiger’s skin, but not his bones. You can depict people’s faces, but not their hearts.”

Antonioni was able to wrangle such a coveted invite, one imagines, not only because of his international prestige but because he had a reputation as a man of the left. He’d begun his career as a documentarian with an eye for the downtrodden proletariat, turning out reportages on Po River fishermen and the street sweepers of Rome. His fame, however, rests on a series of startlingly original fiction films which applied a sui generis visual language to narratives of anxiety, anomie, and, in the words of Alberto Moravia, “nameless, formless anguish.” These films are mostly (but not exclusively) set among the upper-middle classes of contemporary industrial society, in which the camera’s role was independent of and at times seemingly antagonistic to the characters, positioning them not as commanding the center of the image but as furniture, as debris. His first arthouse blockbusters were made in his native Italy, but come the time that Antonioni was getting his ticket punched for China, he’d already been shooting films abroad for several years—Blow-Up (1966) in Swinging London, and in counterculture California, Zabriskie Point (1970), a film that concludes with the mass demolition of Western consumer goods and conveniences. Given such evidence of the filmmaker’s appetite for destruction, a country still in the tremors of the rip-it-up Cultural Revolution might have expected in Antonioni a simpatico artist.

Whatever officials had hoped that Antonioni would deliver, Chung Kuo—Cina wasn’t it. When the movie was completed, an outraged patriotic Chinese people rose as one to condemn it, never mind the fact that few, if any, of its critics had seen it. (In this regard, our current-day trailer-reviewing cultural commentary is not so far removed from that of the Cultural Revolution.) The trouble may have started with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress with a vicious vested interest in casting herself as cultural commissar, who was then very much wearing the pants in the administration. The movie was denounced in the People’s Daily. Luo Jinbiao, an attaché at the Chinese embassy in Rome who had helped to arrange for Antonioni’s trip, was consigned to self-criticism in a study group. Reports have been made of a popular song circulated in primary schools in the mid-1970s, its title translated as “Let’s Make Antonioni Mad.”

The most potentially provocative aspect of Chung Kuo—Cina is overlooked in the contemporary PRC criticisms available in English—this being its insistent return to the theme of theater. Each episode ends with a performance: the first with an orchestra of smiling marionettes, the second a field day at a Nanjing kindergarten, the third with a troupe of Shanghai acrobats plying their trade. Individually these might be taken as tourist curios; collectively, they suggest a judgement on the society being observed, a new society engaged in performing the role of “new society.” When combining this with a commentary that avers to the chartered, Potemkin village quality of the tour, it’s difficult not to have a sense that Antonioni is telling us something here.

Michelangelo Antonioni, Chung Kuo – Cina, 1972, color, sound, 135 minutes.

Instead, in the February 22, 1974, edition of Peking Review, an English-language news magazine that, since 1958, has operated as an official house organ of the PRC for the non-Sinophone world, various writers seem preoccupied with the idea that Antonioni has made the country look too shabby. One writer criticizes the photography of Tiananmen: “The film was taken on a bright sunny day in May. Nevertheless, the Square is shown in dim and dreary colors. The grand Square is presented in a disorderly fashion as if it were a market place of noisy confusion.”

Fang Chun-sheng, identified as an employee of Peking No. 3 Cotton Mill, complains, “At one study meeting, we workers expressed our militant will to ‘spin cloth for the revolution’ and ‘to contribute to the world revolution.’ Antonioni said that the talks were ‘repetitive and monotonous,’ and ‘not a true discussion’. . . In the mind of this reactionary, speaking of revolution is ‘monotonous.’ Does this mean that only talking about making money is not ‘monotonous’?”

The study meeting in question, a mild and placid affair, draws comparative contrast to the campus convocation that opens Zabriskie Point, a student strike where participants bark to be heard over one another and over the pulsing Pink Floyd on the soundtrack. Antonioni’s films in the industrial West are defined by the lassitude of what he called “dead time,” but also marked by violent explosions of noise—the persecutorial cacophony of the Rome stock exchange in L’Eclisse (1962), the industrial clamor of The Red Desert (1964), or the Yardbirds interlude in Blow-Up. Chung Kuo—Cina is quiet, even by Antonioni’s standards, and marked by a slackness that seems by turns both serene and unnatural.

The images that Antonioni captures aren’t willfully uglified, as regime critics claimed, though they might have seemed that way, absent instructive, exhorting narration. Antonioni’s commentary is calm, uninflected, and the soundtrack is ambient musique concrète. Each episode begins with fanfare, the same song—“Wo ai Beijing Tiananmen_,” performed by the Beijing Railway Workers’ Children’s Choir—before going quiet, and for the most part staying that way. The exceptions are the performance sections, such as the regimental marching and chanting of the kindergarteners who, you may contemplate in passing, would have been in their early twenties during 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. Like most imaginings of heaven, the ideal of a worker’s paradise provided for Antonioni and his crew is both restive and rather etiolated. At times, the silence is deafening.

Chung Kuo—Cina is being screened Friday, January 5, and Saturday, January 6, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.