Mao came to regret letting Michaelangelo Antonioni into Communist China after seeing the three part documentary that he eventually produced, Chung Kuo – China. While it’s not surprising that Mao was eager to let the rest of the world see into the vast red state that had until then only really existed in popular culture as either a Communist menace or a nation of kung fu masters, it is surprising that Antonioni was accorded so much freedom to explore. While he openly states in the documentary that they were watched at all times and escorted and watched by the many guards that stand on every corner in every street even to this day, the fact that an Italian film crew was able to film inside courtyards and the Forbidden City in Beijing, agricultural communes in Henan and capture various snippets of normal life in such a mysterious (to the outside world) country is testament to how highly regarded a film-maker he was in his time.
The film itself is surprisingly even-handed, pulling no punches when Antonioni sees injustice or poverty but also remarking on the ‘manners and subtle intelligence’ of the people they encounter. As he states in the film’s opening, the people are the protagonists in this film and they are definitely the stars of the show. Any Westerner who has spent an extended period of time in China, even nowadays, will tell you that by walking down the street, you will get attention. Either children will approach you and investigate your appearance, or old people will sit and stare from the many benches that are dotted around the many and varying parks. It’s par for the course – not so bad in Shanghai and the more cosmopolitan parts of Beijing, but it’s always to be expected. While at first it’s quite disconcerting, you soon learn to live with it. This film is notable for demonstrating to the viewer just what living in the country is like as a Westerner – every person who appears on-screen rightly and justly stares directly into the camera lens. Of course, the people shown here had seen films and cameras before – the personality cult that Mao encouraged couldn’t exist without films – but it’s the presence of a Western film crew that engendered these looks. But at no stage does the film seek to dehumanise the subjects, but it does attempt to expose the dehumanising conditions that the population, particularly in the country, lived in then and continue to live in to this day.
What this film also does is show what life was like before the Tiananmen Square massacre and the mostly unchanged roads that were then just a normal place but now, to Western eyes, are incredibly politically charged and represent everything bad about the Chinese government. There is no political grandstanding in this film, and not much governmental commentary aside from the occasional aside about a local governor or party secretary who didn’t allow this or that. The film is pleasingly even-handed and neutral in these areas, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. Had this film been made by an American, it’s difficult to see how this tone could have remained.
Another great thing about this film is its occasional focus on the lives of children at that time. For a country that famously placed such strict controls on its population – now largely relaxed, but the myth of the all-encompassing One Child Policy persists – children are a massive part of this film. In a perverse way, Mao’s ideas were more progressive than those of his contemporaries – he believed that women should carry out their fair share of the work, and could work just as hard as the men, while both parents should care for and raise children. This isn’t to say that the work they carried out wasn’t backbreaking agricultural labour, but it’s another point of interest. But it’s the children shown in the film, now in their mid-forties to mid-fifties, who will have seen the second Great Leap Forward – into the world of state capitalism and technological advances. Modern day Chinese children are now more likely to live in the city than in the country, and have more access to television, the internet, and other aspects of modern culture than ever before. While it’s true that these facets are officially tightly controlled, the vast levels of piracy mean that your average Chinese child is easily on level pegging with your average British or American child, film/game-wise. It is the current generation of middle-aged Chinese men and women, growing up in the time shown in Chung Kuo – China, that will have experienced the greatest changes and it is this film that provides a powerful and essentially truthful insight into what prefigured the changes that created a manufacturing superpower.
This film is a giant of a documentary, a legendary documentary classic that in its three short hours shows the audience the basic humanity and dignity that these people tried to live in, under the most degrading and arduous circumstances. It’s telling that while we lump North Korea into the same Communist boat as China, China was at the time of filming far in advance of North Korea. Cars populate the roads, there is ample food and water, and people seem to have relative freedom – three things that are still non-existent in North Korea. This film humanises China and its people, and the fact that Mao disproved of it says everything about him, and how he ran the country.