Saturday, June 21, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Chung Kuo – Cina (China) (1972)

A Peek Inside

It was very strange indeed when the Chinese government of the time banned this film and called it anti-Chinese propaganda. Surely, the communist government then had watched Zabriskie Point and perhaps agreed that its ending of blowing up consumerism literally in your face, warranted the commissioning of Michelangelo Antonioni to shoot a documentary about China, and probably expected some beholden, pro-communist doctrine look at the state of things in the country, where the positives exalted and the negatives swept under the carpet.

Alas Cina in my opinion stayed quite objective, and doesn't offer any judgemental criticism through its eye in the camera lenses, either for or against policies that unfolded in front of them. For the period of time that Antonioni and his crew were the host of the Communist Part in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, what we got instead was an extremely fascinating look at the facets of live within the iron curtain, from major sights and recognizable attractions, to the lesser seen mundane activities of the everyday lives of the average joe.

A magnum of a movie unfolding itself in 3 parts, we begin this rare look of a journey into China during its Revolution, and if pictures can tell a thousand words, what more moving images? Starting off at a defining location in Tiananmen Square, there are some subtle differences at the Square then, and now. The theme song for the documentary happened to be "I Love Tiananmen Square" which schoolchildren sing with gusto, and we see later how the little tykes get indoctrinated quite innocently through propaganda infused into song and dance that they participate enthusiastically. Besides this recognizable landmark, it became like a journey through time as we also get to look at The Forbidden City, as well as The Great Wall in its pre-restored state of today, sans millions of tourists too, and witness broken, unmended sections that riddled the monument which was referred to as not one built by an Emperor, but one built by slaves.

It's a rare treat indeed because the filmmakers dare to push the boundaries of permission granted to them, where on occasions even after explicitly being told "No" to filming a particular moment or location, the camera still rolls anyway, and we're told and get to see just exactly what was forbidden, which I think in today's context, is nothing to get riled up with. We get an observation of a slice of everyday life, where the camera lingers on to provide strange yet intriguing images such as a typical work day in a factory, women with bound feet, and amazing sights and sounds such as a man riding a bicycle and practising Qigong simultaneously! We also get explained certain policies of the communists at the time, which seem quite unbelievable that home rentals are capped at 5% of whatever your monthly salary is, or how workers work with a general lack of anxiety and urgency.

In true Antonioni fashion, we get to see luxurious shots of vast landscapes in the country as they make way to the rural areas, such as the Honan Province and the Yellow River, in a balance with city landscape shots in Shanghai and Suzhou. It's this fine balance of the rural and the urban, of Chinese people living and working in both contexts in the country, that I thought makes this documentary quite a winner.

But what was truly fascinating, were the carefully prepared episodes that pepper the documentary. One unforgettable episode that you must see for yourself, is something of a celebration of Chinese traditional medicine vis-a-vis modern Western medicine. I just cannot imagine how acupuncture is used as an anesthesia for a Cesarean section, as we see incredibly long needles poked into a woman to numb her womb and nerves, as doctors both work on getting her newborn out, while talking, and feeding(!) her at the same time! It's so unsettling at I was tempted to look away when the scalpel cuts through flesh, yet on the other hand, just refused to blink with wide-eyed amazement at how this feat was performed, and wondered if it's still being performed until this day!

Something else I found peculiar, was how the last act rattled on like an acrobatics variety show. Granted that for an audience of the time, they might have found it to be an experience watching it, but somehow, I thought it was a sense of deja vu, whether or not having to watch that particular segment on some other variety show on television (could be this one, I'm not too sure), but the stunts performed were found to be quite familiar. I believe some would have made their way as a standard export items for travelling Chinese acrobats to arm themselves with in their travels overseas, and I'm fairly certain some I've seen in Chinatown some years back. But anyway, it's still quite something

Cina as a documentary film was one which was draped with fascination for both filmmakers as well as an audience, rather than championing anti-whatever sentiments from either side of the world. Not having seen many movies, either features, shorts or documentaries made during the Cultural Revolution era or about that era in question (propaganda included), I think this Antonioni film has more than made its mark as a definitive documentary that anyone curious about the life of the time, would find it a gem to sit through.

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