Chung Kuo—Cina (China). 1972. Italy. Written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. 35mm. In Italian; English subtitles. 215 min.
One of the most riveting documentary film portraits of China was almost never seen. In 1971, a year before Nixon’s historic visit to China and seemingly a harbinger of a thawing of international relations during the Cultural Revolution, Antonioni was invited by Mao Zedong’s regime to make a work of propaganda about the superior virtues of the Communist nation. Fascinated by a country that remained an enigma to the West, the filmmaker shot nearly 100 hours of film during his travels from Peking to Shanghai by way of the countryside. Antonioni, his cameraman Luciano Tovoli, and his sound recordist Giorgio Pallota scrupulously maintained a posture of detached uncertainty—attempting to capture, and comprehend, a fictitious utopia, a staged performance, knowing that images of poverty and dissent were kept hidden from them. The resulting film so enraged Mao’s regime that it waged an international campaign to destroy Chung Kuo—China and its maker (“A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks” went one widely published screed in English). Broadcast in a severely cut version on American television in 1973—with frequent commercial breaks, ironies of ironies!—Chung Kuo has been hotly debated but rarely seen in its entirety. This New York premiere theatrical run of the original version is essential not only to any Antonioni retrospective but also to any understanding of the depiction of China in Western cinema.