Antonioni's Chung Kuo

So I'm researching camera angles for an article I'm writing, and so I break out the trusty Susan Sontag, On Photography, and I finally get to the last essay/chapter, which I guess I've never read.

It's the one where she talks about Michelangelo Antonioni's Chung Kuo - Cina, his 1972 documentary gift from Italy to the PRC--which promptly got caught up in China's internal party battle between Mao's wife and Zhou Enlai, and was massively denounced as a vicious pack of anti-China propaganda. [The Party had approved and supervised/surveilled the 8-week shooting, and Antonioni deployed secret cameras at various points to shoot un-preapproved crowd shots.]

As evidence, the Communist-controlled news media published an analysis/critique of Antonioni's editing techniques, his subjects--and his camera placement:

And he was accused of denigrating the right subjects by his way of photographing them: by using "dim and dreary colors" and hiding people in "dark shadows"; by treating the same subject with a variety of shots -- "there are sometimes long-shots, sometimes close-ups, sometimes from the front, and sometimes from behind" -- that is, for not showing things from the point of view of a single, ideally placed observer; by using high and low angles -- "The camera was intentionally turned on this magnificent modern bridge from very bad angles in order to make it appear crooked and tottering"; and by not taking enough full shots -- "He racked his brain to get such close-ups in an attempt to distort the people's image and uglify their spiritual outlook."
Now I'm fascinated. The film--and subsequently, all Antonioni's work--was banned in China, and was only shown for the first time in 2004. It caused a diplomatic scene at the Venice Film Festival in 1974 when it was set to be screened at La Fenice.

I'm trying to download a torrent of it right now, but otherwise, it's so hard to find, you might as well be in China. The only thing on the YouTube, appropriately enough, is a five-min segment of comrades lining up to have their photos taken in Tianenmen Square.

ESWN has excerpts of Umberto Eco and Sontag discussing the film's Chinese reaction [via, found via supernaut]
Google trans. of clip's narration/subtitles [fuluzhenxiang]

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: April 7, 2007.

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