While heroic murals loom over the ordinary Chinese, the children, Antonioni says, are “the stars” — of schoolroom propaganda exercises not least. “Chung Kuo” alternates between the Brownian motion of bustling crowds and the spectacle of organized humanity. The movie ends with a lengthy sequence, perhaps a half-hour, of acrobats and jugglers performing feats of balance and dexterity.
Antonioni’s sense of China as offering a “vast repertoire of human behavior” might seem patronizing, but his travelogue is generally affirmative and admiring as well as entrancing. When a shortened version, running two hours with commercials, was televised as part of an ABC News special in early 1973, the New York Times critic John J. O’Connor praised “Chung Kuo” as “visually breathtaking” and characterized by “a degree of sophistication that would appear to be beyond the capabilities or experience of most American television.”
Mr. O’Connor also noted “the degree of cool objectivity maintained by the director toward his subject.” This was not regarded as a virtue by Chinese authorities. Although “Chung Kuo” seems to have been initially praised by the Chinese diplomats who previewed it in Italy, Antonioni was soon after accused of perpetrating a malicious slander. Perhaps caught in a political struggle between the relatively liberal Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, and that country’s hard-line Gang of Four, the director became the target of an orchestrated campaign. Wall posters in Beijing showed his face covered with swastikas; he was denounced as a lackey of both Benito Mussolini and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The film, of course, went unseen — it was not publicly shown in China until 2004 when it was screened to 800 people at the Beijing Film Academy.
Attacked by the Italian Communist Party as well, “Chung Kuo” was subjected to boisterous protests at the 1973 Venice Film Festival. “The Italian government had done everything possible to prevent the showing,” Umberto Eco wrote in an essay concerning “the difficulty of being Marco Polo” (the 13th-century Italian merchant and traveler to whom Antonioni several times compares himself), noting that “the screening took place while police held an enormous, tense crowd at bay.”
Stunned and hurt by the ferocity of this response, Antonioni wrote in his own defense that “Chung Kuo” was not about China, but the Chinese people, and that he did not travel to China to understand it, but rather to look at it and record what he saw. “We could only glance,” he says at one point during the film. “Chung Kuo” is that glimpse — and more, a tourist’s snapshot that has the heft of a monument.