It is understandable that Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the few Western directors permitted to film in China during the Cultural Revolution, was able to catch only a ‘quick glance’ of the country, as he put it in his 1972 documentary, Chung Kuo–Cina; time constraints and the political situation did not allow him to do otherwise. But what a glance! The film galvanized the prc in a mass campaign against the director and touched off diplomatic incidents across Europe; four decades later, it would again stir intense but very different responses among Chinese viewers. In between, Chung Kuo had become that intriguing oxymoron: a well-known obscure film. The least seen and least studied of Antonioni’s works in the West, in China its notoriety was once inversely matched by the number of its viewers—it was the film that everybody deplored but almost nobody had watched.

In early 1974, a year after the tv release of Chung Kuo in Italy and the United States, the prc government launched a massive political campaign to ‘Criticize Antonioni’s Anti-China Film’.footnote1 The press harangued the Italian director for his ‘hostility towards Chinese people’, calling him an imperialist hack, a reactionary revisionist and a fascist. They accused him of selecting specific materials and using ‘despicable tricks’ to present a drab and distorted view of the new China, ignoring its industrial modernization and social progress.footnote2 The film was banned and Chinese diplomats were dispatched to block its release in various European countries. In 1977, Beijing protested about the screening of Chung Kuo at the Venice Biennial and tried—unsuccessfully—to get it cancelled. The furore prompted Umberto Eco to publish an essay called ‘De Interpretatione, or the Difficulty of Being Marco Polo’, in which he tried to see the issue from a ‘Chinese point of view’: it was their profoundly different experience of modernity and politically conscious visual aesthetic that led the Chinese to misread Antonioni’s film, Eco argued.footnote3 Joining the debate in the New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag assailed what she saw as a clichéd and didactic system of image culture in the People’s Republic, which prevented the Chinese from appreciating Antonioni’s art.footnote4

The Chung Kuo controversy is by no means a unique inter-cultural phenomenon. Louis Malle’s Phantom India, a similar type of ‘observer-documentary’ made for television in 1969, provoked ‘indignation in officialdom’ in India.footnote5 Sontag’s own documentary on the Yom Kippur war, Promised Lands (1973), was criticized and banned in Israel. In addition, a hostile reception of his work was no novelty for Antonioni: Il grido (1957) had aroused the ire of Italian Communists; L’avventura was greeted by catcalls at its Cannes premiere in 1960; Zabriskie Point (1970) was derided and ridiculed by American critics.footnote6 In a 1974 interview, Antonioni made clear that he was well aware of the internal conflicts that lay behind the ‘scene’ the Chinese government was making.footnote7 He surmised that his film was being used as a pretext by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and the Shanghai Group to attack Zhou Enlai, who had approved his visit to the prc. An episode of the Pi Lin Pi Kong—‘Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius’—movement, the campaign was part of a larger struggle to determine the future course of China, not just in the wake of the most destructive and decentring phase (1966–69) of the Cultural Revolution, but also in anticipation of the post-Mao era. Whereas Zhou was in the forefront of the ‘opening-up’ initiatives following Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Jiang Qing and her allies used their control of the media to try to check a ‘backslide’ to the ‘capitalist road’; engagement with the West was viewed as a threat to China’s revolutionary purity. Within this context, it is clear that the issue at stake is not one of essentialist cultural differences; indeed, the distinctive trait which Antonioni himself had identified in his work, ‘a certain trust in the interpretative capacities of the viewer’,footnote8 was by no means alien to Chinese visual-art traditions, especially the genre of literati painting, which values aesthetic suggestiveness and ambiguity. But if, as Roland Barthes suggested, Antonioni’s subtlety ‘has a relationship with the Orient’, this Orient was fiercely repressed during the anti-traditionalist Cultural Revolution.footnote9

As Eco and Sontag suggested, Chung Kuo may have looked too cool-coloured, elusive and ambiguous for a country which, at the time, revered brightness, theatricality and revolutionary heroism. But how did it fare in the West? Some of Antonioni’s critics complained that the material was ‘repetitive and at times rather obvious’; it would be unfavourably compared to Joris Ivens’s more celebratory How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976), for example.footnote10 Yet the truth is that Chung Kuo was soon lost in the wild vines of indifference. Briefly mentioned in books on Italian cinema and documentaries, it is generally skipped in English-language monographs and collections of essays devoted to Antonioni.footnote11 Considering that other ‘mature’ Antonioni films generated such a huge body of critical work, the very lean scholarship on Chung Kuo is perplexing. Is it because the film has been absent on the circuit of distribution for so long?footnote12 Did the controversy that greeted its reception deflect attention from its aesthetic significance? Or was the film such a departure from the kind of European art cinema for which Antonioni was best known that it came to be regarded as an anomaly, not worth in-depth examination?

There is no doubt that Chung Kuo occupies a unique place within Antonioni’s oeuvre: it is his only full-length documentary and was originally shot for tv broadcast. Nonetheless, it remains important to an understanding of his later work. The reverberations of the Chung Kuo scandal may be detected in his next film, The Passenger (1974), where the passage of the tv reporter Locke (Jack Nicholson) from optimism to despair, as he assumes the identity of a dead gunrunner he had befriended in Africa, perhaps speaks to Antonioni’s own disillusionment. The experience of Zabriskie Point may also be of relevance to Chung Kuo: the two protagonists carry the collective anger of anti-establishment youth culture in 1960s America, which crescendos in an apocalyptic anti-capitalism in the final sequence; together with the mainstream American outrage at the film, this may have helped convince the Beijing authorities that Antonioni would be the right director for a documentary project about China.footnote13 But the debacle of Zabriskie Point—‘one of the most expensive failures’footnote14 of its day—begs the question: why was Antonioni willing to take on another foreign country? The director’s reaction was revealing. Interviewed about the angry us reception of Zabriskie Point, Antonioni insisted: ‘I am not an American, and I shall never tire of repeating that I do not claim to have done an American film. But why deny legitimacy to a foreign, detached observation?’footnote15 This belief in the validity of an outsider’s detached view could well have been carried over to the making of Chung Kuo.