This afternoon on the way back from lunch, Winnie and I stopped at the DVD store. There we came across a copy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Cina: Chung Kuo (China: the Middle Kingdom). The film is a documentary that Antonioni shot in Beijing, Henan, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai during a five-week trip and later aired on Italian TV as an almost four-hour documentary. Antonioni didn’t sneak into the country, he was invited by the Chinese government. No one really knew what was going on inside the country at that time so this film can very much bee seen as the film equivalent of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China.
The fact that Snow and Antonioni were both invited by the Communists to see life inside China is were the similarities end however. Antonioni, while he praises the simplicity and collectivism of Chinese life at that time, does indicate through voiceovers that there is some repression in the country. He also mentions two or three times through out the film that the Chinese government minders asked him not to film something, but since Antonioni’s team already had their camera on they filmed it anyway.
What comes out in the end is this great picture of China that most foreigners — including expats like myself who live here — have hardly ever seen. Beijing and Shanghai without the skyscrapers and the traffic. In fact when they show Pudong all you see is a shipyard and an oil refinery the rest is all fields.
It is amazing what is still the same as well. Many of the activities that the children play in school and the songs they sing haven’t changed in 30 years. Neither have the lives of the rural people in many of the villages in Henan and the rest of central China. That is probably the saddest thing about the documentary. You could change the calendar to 2008 and the scenes in Henan would still look the same. China’s opening up has made a lot of improvements, but for rural people a lot of these improvements have come because they are able to leave their villages and work in the cities — even though the government has tried to make structural improvements there, corruption has arguably prevented those reforms from having their full effect.
But that is an argument that is an argument that can be fleshed out during another post. If you’ve got four-hours to kill and are a fan of China’s history, go out and purchase Antonioni’s Cina, you won’t be disappointed. It is an eye-opener.