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Ok, Let’s Go!


Hi Art, September 2007


Many famous people have kicked the bucket recently: Ingmar Bergman,  

Recently, many people kicked the bucket: Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Yang Dechang, Hou Yaowen, Wen Xingyu, Jorg Immendorff, and others. Please forgive my blunt choice of words: I use these words when my own kith and kin died as well.  

In general, I try to avoid euphemisms like “pass away” for the dead, or “immortal” for the gone, unless someone pushes a gun against my throat. If someone dies, then they are merely dead. And no matter how terrific the bloody wording is, you can’t bring a dead man back to life.  

I salute Ingmar Bergman for the master film director that he was. It is he who brought the rational ideas of philosophy into his works, using a free and unbridled style when shooting his films just as if he were writing a book. Yang Dechang was also a famous film director, who believed that wonderful films could be completed by a small team, without tremendous investment behind them.   

Aside from Legal Report, the only TV show I can watch is the sit-com where I came to know Wen Xingyu, an actor who played the role of an awkward cadre to perfection. His character was recently retired from a leading post; not content with the ongoing status quo, they continue to push to make a contribution that is nevertheless misunderstood by other people.  

Hou Yaowen, my old neighbor, was a very kind person. He would routinely crack daily jokes during the SARS crisis in 2003, and when people dare not go out, he stayed at home in his courtyard drinking. My liking for him doubled when I discovered that he had been Guo Degang’s teacher.  

Hou once asked me to give him a catalogue of mine. That evening, I sought out a nice thick volume, signed it, and put it out to send to him. To my eternal shame, I then drank too much, and forgot to send it across to him. Now, the album still lies on the shelf, bearing the inscription: “In great appreciation of Mr. Hou Yaowen’s comments, May 5, 2003”.  

Jorg Immendorff was a famous German painter who held a successful exhibition in China. It is said that he not only painted very well, but was respected among Germany’s political elite, and even had a knack for running restaurants.  

It was on the pages of the People’s Daily newspaper that decorated the walls of my grandmother’s house that I first saw the name of Antonioni. I was in primary school, and the yellowed papers were filled with critical articles. There was not one advertisement. Banner headlines to the left proclaimed: “Down With the Russian Revisionist Socialist Imperialism and its Running Dogs”. On the right, “Down with the US Imperialists and their Running Dogs”. In the middle sat an article criticizing Antonioni. I remember wondering at the time why the entire newspaper was concerned with running dogs, and the only person written about in the center still anti-China.  

It was many years later, as a college student, that I started to watch Antonioni’s films, and began to understand that he was one of the “three -ini’s” of Italian neo-realist films (namely, Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni). Antonioni’s film Red Desertwas reputed to be the first real color film in the history of motion pictures. The film Blowup still stands as representative of art house excellence. He won awards at all the major international film festivals, including sweeping the Venice Film Festival title on five occasions. He was awarded an Honorary Oscar and Honorary Venice prize in 1995 and 2000 respectively.

 Antonioni’s films were characterized by few words, long scenes, and implied narrative, from which China’s six generation of film makers learned a lot. In addition, the influence of France’s New Wave upon young Chinese film directors is responsible for their success at various European film festivals.  

Some people say that Antonioni was down on his luck in that he came to China at just the wrong time. Just look at how cocky Bernardo Brtolucci was when he arrived here to shoot the film The Last Emperor. He was raised high to the sky by everyone who could speak. The Summer Palace and Great Wall were offered to him. He could shoot anywhere he wanted to. Actor Ying Ruocheng had a glass fo the finest wine placed by his bed every day.

As the artistic creator, I think Antonioni should have chosen that moment to come to China. I also think that it was right that the Chinese people should criticize him. Over the century following the birth of motion pictures in 1895, there have been many genres and styles in the world’s film industry: Italian Poetic Realism of the ‘30s, Neo-Realism of 1945-50, French New wave of 1958-62, new German film of the early 1960s, new Hollywood film of the 1970s, globalization of the Hollywood studios in the 1980s, followed by the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Abbas Kiarostami in the 90s and the EDV and digitalized films in the 21st century.  

So far, Chinese directors have not directly involved themselves in the major genres and movements, and no world class film directing masters or decent films with international appeal have emerged from China.

 Indeed, of all the world class film directors, Anonioni was the only one who came to China to shoot a film. He is also the only one whose film - a three-hour documentary called China - was criticized and condemned by nearly a billion Chinese people in theaters around the country for defacing the New China.

 More than 200 pages of critical articles about China were generated in the first two months of 1974, as published by the People’s Literature Press. Authors came from all walks of life, including many revolutionary cadres, as well as ordinary folk from the places where Antonioni shot the film.

 There is no prior precedent in the history of motion pictures around the world that such a large scale critical movement can be triggered by film. This neo-realistic film abandoned all luxury and glamour, emphasizing a reflection of social reality. An artistic choice to focus on the working people, and offer no easy answers to the audiences was a familiar mark of Antonioni’s work. The closed, culturally destitute monotony of China in the later years of the Cultural Revolution therefore provided excellent shooting conditions for Antonioni in his ongoing search to “reveal the potential meanings with implied and empty visual effects”.   

China was released at the 37th Venice Biennale in 1974, and the sensation spread across Europe, bringing Antonioni greater degrees of fame. Chinese people had never imagined that an exchange of thoughts and ideas with the Italian master director could become a shared memory of a generation in an isolated era. The death of Antonioni spurred many people - especially those who had suffered most in the Cultural Revolution - to remember that time. Some scene continued to be vivid in their memories, and the name of Antonioni was not unfamiliar to them.  

In 1985, Antonioni was paralyzed, and lost the ability to speak. He suffered an added loss of his vision in September 2006. Despite this, Antonioni maintained an affection for China, and never believed that his film had besmirched the nation. In his later years, friends would suggest a repeat visit to China, to which he would answer “OK, lets go!” Ill health stopped him repeating his 1972 journey to China. Many Chinese people, however, hoped to see him return. If he had done, they would have asked just one question: “How did you feel to suffer the condemnation of the Chinese nation all those years ago?”


Zhu Wei

Wednesday, August 15, 2007