Documentary: ‘They Chose China’ (2005) (52 minutes)

A tremendously interesting Canadian documentary about those American troops who, when the time came to go home after the Korean War in the early fifties, preferred to try to make a life in China instead.

For an alternative link, one that doesn’t have the subtitles, click here.

Between his brilliant ‘Zabriskie Point‘ and ‘The Passenger‘, the film-making giant Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary called ‘Chung Kuo, Cina‘ for Italian TV in three seventy minute chunks (click on ‘settings’ for English or Spanish subtitles). It came out in 1972 and was probably filmed in 1971. This was an important time in history in terms of the USA officially recognising “Red” China, something which Nixon wanted to do from first reaching the White House in January 1969. Secret back channel communications went down, with Henry Kissinger as Nixon’s point man who visited China in secret in July of 1971 prior to Nixon’s 1972 visit. One assumes that Antonioni’s film came from the general Chinese desire to thaw relations with the west.

Anyway, within the Antonioni film, that tries to show what life is life for ordinary people, there’s a section when the narrator mentions how the people seem fascinated and weirded out by their European visitors but are too polite to run away so they just essentially gawp and wonder what the heck’s going on. In fact, one gets that sense of wonder all the way through. That’s the jumping off point for this documentary ‘They Chose China’. The film-maker talks of an even earlier time, in the sixties as a child, when he noticed as westerner, dressed as a Chinese worker, going along the road on his green bicycle, and he too was vexed and wanted to know who he was and where did this “alien” come from?

The Korean War troops were quarantined for a period, after they advised the authorities that they wanted to live in China instead of going to the U.S., on the basis of letting them think it over some more, to see if they were really sure. In 1953, ‘McCarthyism’ still reared its ugly head, with Joe McCarthy only biting the dust in 1954 in the Army-McCarthy Hearings.  Most unfairly, those troops who, on second thoughts, decided that they perhaps didn’t want to go to live in China after all faced punishment for their supposed sedition. Others did indeed go to China. Some stayed for a while but then went back to the U.S. while others made a real go of it. In the above film, we see some Americans go back to China, after having lived there for a while, and other Americans visit the U.S. for the first time in years.


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