I never believed for a minute that Chung Kuo was a truthful depiction of China in the early 1970s. The Michelangelo Antonioni documentary, in my mind, is more about how China was perceived and presented than what China really was.
I have a clear memory of that era and could easily detect which scenes were set up and which were spontaneous. Of these, only the Henan village scene looks untainted by manipulation. Each of the farmers shows an expression of either curiosity or hesitancy, which is very realistic for that time. Of course, the candid-camera shots of bikers and pedestrians are gems.
We must remember that 1972, when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) had gripped the nation, was not China's brightest moment. Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) was in control of the arts and her understanding of politically correct aesthetics, as reflected in the model operas, was specific: The hero must have the spotlight, and the villain (a class enemy such as a landlord) must not stand straight or get proper lighting. People (the good ones) do not walk or saunter; they march with fists held tight, with a passion for revolution and hatred for class enemies.
Although his Chinese hosts mostly staged what Antonioni saw, the Italian auteur highlighted moments when people were in low spirits. Any competent artist or journalist would be drawn to people who are not acting but just being themselves. They could be laughing, crying or simply have a blank stare. But in that era of extreme propaganda, each facial expression was magnified to symbolize the whole country. Thus, laughter equals great achievement, crying is pre-1949 misery, and a blank stare means they are numb.
Jiang and her ilk were not satisfied until every class-correct Chinese person on screen was ecstatic. Anything less would be "insulting to the Chinese people". That's something even the left-leaning Antonioni could never grasp.
Chung Kuo has historical value. Behind the scenes, the struggle is palpable between those who followed Jiang's dogma of filmmaking, and those inside the Party apparatus who wanted to seize the moment and end all the madness of political campaigns. Sadly, the movie was hijacked and turned into a salvo against reform.
Although the excesses of those days are no longer there, traces of the mentality remain. When I go out to the provinces on assignments, some official handlers love to put words into the mouths of interviewees. They are afraid that those I interview may say something that puts the place in a bad light. In a sense, they see each person I talk to as the epitome of that city or province. They do not understand that real people giving real answers will, in the long term, give their hometown both a good name and real texture.
Sometimes, I think that the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart, if shown in China during the 1980s, would have been seen as an affront. It has footage of ordinary people in ordinary situations, which many Chinese at that time would interpret as "backward". Looking back, it was a lifestyle. We now wax nostalgic.
A few years ago, a Hollywood movie was condemned by some Chinese filmgoers for showing Shanghai buildings with clotheslines outside the window. I guess they would have wanted to see every household with a power-hungry dryer.
We are more open-minded today, but there'll always be those who - subconsciously or not -want every China-related film to be essentially a commercial for tourism.