Cinema Italian Style - Chung Kuo - Cina


Antonioni was welcomed into communist China in 1971 when the Western world understood very little about the country. The Chinese government invited the renowned director to film specific regions of their homeland. Then after five weeks of hard work, the government banned the film altogether. Naturally, the picture's political mystique makes it all the more fascinating to watch. It's a rarely seen, 220-minute long documentary in the form of a rough-cut travel log. Narrating the film, Antonioni positions himself as an awkward tourist in a foreign land. At this point in his career the auteur was interested in exploring people and customs outside his native Italy. His subjects are the stoic faces of China, and in Chung Kuo - Cina (1972) he films them from a graceful distance.

The film consists of three parts. The first part takes place in the crowded streets around Peking. Prolonged close-ups capture the faces of the working class. In the cotton factory, the laborers work diligently in their assembly line. At home, couples prepare a modest dinner. In school, students memorize drills and walk in line. The film illustrates devotion to order, community, and a pre-destined way of life. Antonioni is famous for letting shots breath for an uncomfortable amount of time. His goal is ambitious: to record reality in its true form. Life does not move in fast cuts, so neither does the lens that views it. He doesn't spare his audience. One gory scene at a Chinese medical clinic documents a Cesarean operation performed with acupuncture. Here, he succeeds at revealing the raw human moment.

Part Two visits rural settings at the Red Flag canal, a commune in Henan, and the beautiful old city of Suzhow. This section of the film pays respect to the colorful and plentiful agriculture in China. Ancient gardens and rural villages paint an interesting contrast to the dark urban cities. The director reveals how the inhabitants in the rural areas are poor but not destitute. The most touching subjects are the children, who sing and dance in a spirit that feels free of political agenda.

The last and final section shows the industrial ports of urban Shanghai. The cinematography captures a dreary setting that resembles the environmentally conscious film, Red Dessert (1964). The natural sound of traffic is loud and irritating but it sounds authentic. It is no better than Antonioni's abrasive sound compellation, which includes a high-pitched record blaring a political song about President Mao.

Antonioni has said, 'Cinema is not always entertainment. Cinema can be narration.' The auteur drives his point home in Chung Kuo Cina, a non-popular film that requires thought and patience. While it's not his best work, it is still very true to his style.

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