BEIJING The notorious 1972 four-hour documentary film “Chung Kuo” (China) by Michelangelo Antonioni screened publicly for the first time in Beijing to packed audiences last week, 32 years after being commissioned and then banned by the Chinese government.
Nearly 2,000 people attended the two screenings of “Chung Kuo,” filling the Beijing Film Academy theater to capacity.
The screenings were part of a 17-film retrospective of Antonioni’s works at the Beijing Film Academy in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Culture and Cinecitta.
In 1972, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, but it nudged open its closed-door policy in order to try to show its accomplishments to the world. Antonioni was tapped to make a documentary because it was felt that the famous filmmaker and avowed Maoist would make a sympathetic presentation of China’s modernization to the West.
Filming in several cities over a five-week period, Antonioni made nuanced observations of everyday Chinese life and sampled exotic imagery for a Western audience, such as a caesarian performed using only acupuncture for anesthesia, a model commune, and villagers confounded by the camera-wielding foreigner in their midst, with minimal commentary by Antonioni as the film’s narrator.
However, the Italian auteur’s neorealist approach, subtle editorializing and meandering gaze dismayed and outraged Mainland officials, and in 1974 the film was banned.
In the ’80s, the party line on Antonioni eased; however, until now his films still had not been publicly screened.
To the Chinese audience now accustomed to a flood of televised documentaries, and to docu features such as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “Delamu” that earlier this year saw theatrical release, the 32-year-old film looked tame compared to its infamous reputation.
“I thought there would be more controversial content,” says one Film Academy graduate. “To finally see it, it doesn’t too different from what’s on TV now.”
Most of the Chinese audience were very young or had not been born at the time the film was made, and images of ordered communist living felt remote and unfamiliar. “I have a lot of complex feelings watching this film,” says one 40-year-old audience member. “There have been so many changes since I was a boy. It’s an fascinating record, remembering what things used to be like.”
A letter from Antonioni and his wife, Enrica, was read aloud to the audience, expressing thanks that at long last, “Chung Kuo” could finally be screened in China.