In 1972, the acclaimed Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni toured China at the invitation of then-premier Zhou Enlai and made a documentary about the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
The film, Chung Kuo, Cina, sparked one of the biggest—and least warranted—scandals in cinematic history, one that devastated its director.
Conceived by Italian public broadcaster RAI and the Chinese embassy in Rome, the idea behind the film was to have a leftist filmmaker visit China and make a film singing the praises of the communist revolution.
However, Antonioni shot a film that was worlds away from propaganda—a 217-minute travelogue showing ordinary Chinese in plain clothing amid nondescript architecture.
“He just captured the real side of China.”
Chung Kuo, along with the rest of the director’s works, were soon banned in China. The government branded Antonioni as an enemy of the Chinese people, and under pressure from Beijing, several foreign screenings of the film were canceled. Italian communists picketed Antonioni’s appearance at the Venice film festival.
This ignominious chapter in Antonioni’s career is the subject of a new documentary directed by Chinese filmmakers Liu Weifu and Zhu Yun.
Titled Seeking Chung Kuo, it revisits the cities in the original Chung Kuo to find some of the people Antonioni captured on camera four decades ago.
The people who appeared in Chung Kuo were randomly selected and didn’t necessarily know what Antonioni was doing. For that reason, Zhu and Liu thought they would have interesting stories to share.
What they found was that many Chinese people had fond memories of Antonioni.
“It is very precious footage to me.”
Although Chinese censors would later attack him for making a banal film, Antonioni and his crew drew crowds of curious onlookers who had never seen foreigners before.
Among the people caught on camera were a noodle shop manager in Suzhou, children and teachers from a kindergarten in Nanjing, a village chief in Anyang, and a pregnant woman undergoing acupuncture for a C-section in a Beijing hospital.
Liu says many of these people still have vivid memories of the filmmaking experience.
“There was no need to criticize him like that.”
“He just captured the real side of China,” the noodle shop manager told Liu, recalling how a government official later pressed her to write a complaint about Antonioni. “There was no need to criticize him like that.”
Although Antonioni was a left-leaning director, his works did not have obvious political messages. The scenes in Chung Kuo, Liu says, were a reflection of his artistic style, which favored contemplative imagery over story and action.
Enrica Antonioni, the filmmaker’s widow, says Chung Kuo’s negative reception completely destroyed him.
“When the country said, ‘You are our enemy,’ it was like killing him.”
“He put so much work into it,” she says. “The editing alone took six months. It was so much love to make the film. When the country said, ‘You are our enemy,’ it was like killing him.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that Chung Kuo was finally shown publicly in China, at a screening for 800 people at the Beijing Film Academy.
By then, it was too late. A stroke in 1985 had left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
“Otherwise, he would have come to China,” says Enrica Antonioni. “He loved to watch his films with the public, especially young people. For sure he would have gone.”
Three years later, Michelangelo Antonioni passed away in Rome at the age of 94.
Although he was unable to see himself vindicated in China, his work has left a mark on the next generation of Chinese filmmakers.
“He objectively captured many villages and faces of ordinary people,” Zhu says. “I was not born when the film was made. It is very precious footage to me.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.