Antonioni, China, and Reflective Seeing

I’ve written about this phenomenon before: the infinite return of books I’d first read in college, that’d passed through me whole, undigested, unabsorbed, only to re-pique my interest later in life and turn out to be surprisingly relevant. I wasn’t ready for their lessons; their deeds remained undone. You can call them ghost books, for they certainly haunt.

In this case, it’s Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which I first read part of a sociology class on visual and material culture. Did we only read select essays the professor photocopied and stuck in the coursepack? Or did I buy and return a copy of the book to Ulrich’s, the campus bookstore? I can’t remember.

I for sure didn’t remember the closing essay, “The Image-World,” in which Sontag writes about Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 documentary on China called, simply, Chung Kuo  –  China.

Michelangelo Antonioni and crew in a car in Tiananmen Square.
Michelangelo Antonioni in Tiananmen Square during the making of Chung Kuo (via)

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the same year of Nixon’s visit, the Italian director was invited by Mao’s government to film a documentary about the country as part of China’s efforts to strengthen international ties. The 22-day shoot produced a three-part, 220-minute-long film that was panned by the Chinese government – and never publicly shown in China until 2004. You can, as of this writing, find Chung Kuo in its entirety on YouTube, though a proper English-subtitled version is more elusive. I resorted to ordering off eBay what turned out to be a likely-pirated DVD.

I’ve done a bit of research on the same time period for a book project, and what’s immediately remarkable about the film is that it shows images of revolutionary China that I have not seen anywhere else – namely, scenes of everyday life. Antonioni and his skeleton crew had a set itinerary and official government handlers, but it’s where the director chose to aim the camera – at odd angles, at, for instance, people taking pictures at Tiananmen Square instead of Tiananmen itself, that produced both these rare images and the subsequent controversy.

Woman posing in front of Tiananmen. Official buildings off frame.
Woman posing with official buildings off frame -- Chung Kuo (1972)

In her essay, Sontag talks about China having a different photographic culture than Western societies, saying this about the photos she saw families take, and display, in the time she herself spent in China:

A large number of these are the sort of snapshots taken here at family gatherings and on trips; but none is a candid photograph, not even of the kind that the most unsophisticated camera user in [American] society finds normal – a baby crawling on the floor, someone in mid-gesture … generally, what people do with the camera is assemble for it, then line up in a row or two.

Emphasis on the last line is mine, because it strikes me as so recognizably true. Even today, my father sent, to our family WeChat group, a photo of just this: himself and a group of extended relatives smiling for the camera, lined up in two rows. Sontag says that it’s for this reason that Antonioni was criticized; he was violating Chinese society’s photographic norms by taking candid shots of people on the street. He was stealing candid shots without the consent of their subjects, as a thief would.

There’s a ring of truth to this too. And throughout the film, there are times when Antonioni’s voiceover takes on a colonial condescension – as if speaking of a culture that is more primitive (and thus, inferior). Some lines seem to be spoken with a smirk – particularly about outwitting handlers to capture unwanted footage. But what also comes across is a genuine sense of awe and curiosity. This simultaneous reverence and condescension are evident during a stop at a noodle shop in Suzhou, when, after shots of diners crowded around tables and cooks preparing the foods, Antonioni muses (if the subtitled translation is correct): “The broad noodles, served in soy sauce, are the prototype of fettuccine. It’s hard to accept the idea that the Chinese have invented everything, including the fettuccine.”

Cooks in Suzhuo Noodle Shop.
Suzhou Noodle Shop -- Chung Kuo (1972)

Yet Sontag commits essentially the same sin in her critique of Antonioni; she makes broad categorizations about the Chinese people’s relationship to the photograph. To Sontag, China is at a more primitive stage of camera culture (albeit a destructive camera culture). At this stage, there are only “right” images and “wrong” ones, and “the Chinese don’t want photographs to mean very much or to be very interesting. They do not want to see the world from an unusual angle, to discover new subjects. Photographs are supposed to display what has already been described.”

A broad overgeneralization, to say the least. Alongside those lined-up group shots, I have plenty of family photos from my childhood, taken no more than fifteen years after this film was made, that are very much candid. And I don’t think it’s as clear cut as photographic culture in China having “advanced” in that decade and a half along trails blazed by the West. Sontag conflates a governmental stance on controlled image-making with everyday photos taken by the Chinese people. The latter might take some cues from the former, for sure, but it’s by no means the same thing.

In her essay, “When Ordinary Seeing Fails”, Alice Xiang says as much, and in better words than I. Xiang also suggests that a closer viewing of Antonioni’s film refutes Sontag’s analysis: “[W]hat Antonioni recorded in those 220 minutes,” Xiang writes, “shows a director interested precisely in seeking out the modest spaces ‘left over from politics and moralism’; and a director deeply fascinated with capturing staring encounters  –  exchanged between everyday Chinese citizens and himself, as well as between them and the eye of the camera  –  encounters often full of a very potent ‘interest’ on the part of the Chinese in the ‘meaning’ of a camera, the person behind it, and its image-making potential.”

Xiang goes on to catalog some of the different reactions:

Stares: intense, prolonged; shy, smiling; wary, ill-at-ease; unflinching, curious… ‘Leftovers’: unchoreographed ‘everyday’ moments, snatches of time, a giggle and whisper exchanged among two factory girls, a baby slumbering on a grandfather’s shoulder, a card game between friends played in the shade.
Girl staring at camera.
"Intense, prolonged" stares -- Chung Kuo (1972)

Another thing that struck me in particular is how familiar the street scenes are. Some of the fashion and technology might be different, but watching this film, there’s a recognizable character to the people shown – the ways they stare, the ways they carry themselves, and interact on the street, that seems not to have changed much from 1972 to the present day, judging from my visit to Shanghai every two or three years. When I look at similarly dated footage of an American city like New York, I can’t help but feel that the character of the New Yorkers strolling down Broadway in the 1970s is very different from those walking the street today’s. Not so with China.

But is this really the case? Or it is because I’ve lived in America for most of my life, that I’m more attentive to smaller differences in American culture? In her essay, Xiang also categorizes and translates some of the modern-day comments and reactions to the film on the social networking site Douban. What I’ve described is not one of the reactions mentioned, probably because those commenters don’t necessarily have the same American frames of reference that I do.

Which brings me to another phenomenon, maybe characteristic of 1.5-generation immigrants like myself. My grasp of written Chinese isn’t good enough for me to read those comments in full. So my way into Chinese history, and Chinese literature, is often mediated through English translations, from both bilingual observers like Xiang and non-bilingual one like Sontag. Or, in the case of Antonioni, an Italian documentary with English subtitles.

Sometimes, this is cause for remorse. Other times, it requires an expansiveness – an interdependence – that I’m grateful for. Maybe that’s why I’m so enchanted by this documentary and all the surrounding criticism: herein are mirrors upon mirrors, each angled toward one another, such that through them, I can not only see myself reflected, but also sides of me that I can only see when reflected.