If you've been contemplating a quick trip to the People's Republic of China, I have a reasonable summer alternative: call up the nearest Chinese restaurant and order some moo goo gai pan, then curl up with "The Human Face of China" (PBS , Fridays and four succeeding Fridays starting July 11, 9:30-10p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats -- on WNET/NY, for example, the series airs on Thursdays starting July 10).
It is a fascinating, if propagandistic, tour of mainland China -- more than you may ever have wanted to know about life on communes in the land where the East is red.
This five-part series was produced by Film Australia with the cooperation of China. Cooperation! The Chinese should have paidm for the exposure. That is, until the sly narration was added.
"The Human Face of China" is definitely not a slow boat to China -- it is loaded down with fast talk about the marvels of life under the communist regime, which producer Suzanne Baker and director Bob Kingsbury have managed to warn viewers about rather charmingly at the same time that they are presenting the propaganda itself.
It is what "they" wanted the film team to see, the viewer is warned constantly. "The people are like lovely humanoids," the narration says blythely , "spouting propaganda as they play flutes, dance etc. . . ." Although viewers are forewarned, the propaganda is there, nagging away at an otherwise delightfully naive and unpretentiously superficial scrutiny of the heretofore inscrutable.
I have previewed the complete series (without benefit of moo goo gai pan, by the way) and I heartily recommend it to would-be China watchers not yet ready for the prefab tours now available to nonofficial tourists. The premiere concentrates on an acrobatic troupe (the current regime has given new respectability to an old art form), as it trains, travels, and entertains, mostly in the provinces.
In addition, it is made abundantly clear time and time again that official Chinese attention is now being paid to the arts, with apartments provided for the artists and special privileges like high-energy diets, curled hair and, horror of horrors, makeup.
When the troup arrives in a town, the hard-working peasants greet them with warmth and applause; the troup is billeted with the workers and even labor a bit in the cotton fields before the show. It is purely a theatrical gesture, the narration warns us. Previously the documentary has taken us into its confidence , even as it flaunts its idealized images, by revealing to us that while Chinese opera has been buffeted by the winds of political change, acrobatic troups have thrived because they are politically safe. It is seemingly valid insight into the state of "culture" in the People's Republic.
Succeeding programs take a look at land reform, float viewers down the Yangtze River on a steamer with the equivalent of Chinese middle-class travelers , visit a "new village" outside of Shanghai (which looks to me very much like any low-income housing development in capitalistic countries except that baths and kitchens are shared), and examine the government's national healthcare system. At some point in the midst of the obvious official idealized "line" a wise narrator says: "If all was right, there would be no need for propaganda" and the viewer is startled back into reality.
WNET/NY, which is bringing this series to PBS, has been the leader in finding the little worthwhile Chinese footage available to American viewers, ranging from the Shirley MacLaine film on China and the forum which followed, to the most recent film of a Chinese-American's return to the homeland.
According to WNET public affairs head, Jerome Toobin, even more interesting China-watching is in the works. One hopes that soon the programming will originate with the station itself, so that viewers -- and critics -- will not have to wonder how much of a role the Chinese played in the final edited version.
It doesn't matter that much of "The Human Face of China" is bald-faced propaganda, as long as the viewer keeps that in mind as the programs air. What emerges is a captivating peek through the bamboo curtain.