(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)
There's some received wisdom about the Chris Marker filmography, that Dimache à Pékin [Sunday in Peking, 1956] is not only the first Chris Marker film but also the first Marker essay-film, and more broadly the first essay-film period. Except Marker made Olympia 52 in '52, which from the little amount of it I've seen on YouTube, I would call an essay film; and he co-directed with Resnais in '53 Les statues meurent aussi [Statues Die Too] before doing a rewrite on Jean Cayrol's narration for Resnais's '55 Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog]. Anyway, there's a long tradition of "the documentary" — in the sense of using the term. Can we say of La natation, par Jean Taris, champion de France. that it's a documentary portrait of the great athlete? I would say the essay-film or film-poem not only exhibits a display of directorial point-of-view, but additionally displays a "reasonable" (to use a term applicable in law, too) quantity of poetic juxtaposition of ideas, of narration, sound and image. Perhaps then "essay-film" is a qualitative term, and "documentary" shouldn't rightfully exist...
In advance of Resnais's Le chant du styrène, Marker employs Pierre Barbaud to compose the Eastern-accented score, orchestrated by Georges Delerue. Another credit of note: "conseil sinologique: Agnès Varda"...
From the first moments of the voice-over narration across a city balcony bedecked with an array of Chinese objets, to the quick pan upward that shows us we're in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, and thus, probably, on the landing of Marker's own apartment, we are witness to one of the most beautiful Eastmancolor films ever made... The gesture provides a Marker-playful, though perhaps dated occidental context way-in for the joyous surprises that will abound on "the mainland" in the minutes ahead. Marker cuts to an old photo-still of the gates of Peking (present-day Beijing, the cart burdened with history wheels onward), the gates of the tombs of the Ming emperors, and intones: "It's not very often that one can step into a picture belonging to one's childhood — yet, here I was..." Thus signals the cut to Marker's footage of the gates themselves, and the title card: "PÉKIN 1955".
Marker will link the light and mist of the city's early mornings with the politesse of Chinese culture in general, and specifically with the tradition of Chinese painting. And yet: "The price of modernism does not seem so high when we see the harsh price of the picturesque."
The Revolution, though, represented not only an econo-political effort, but also one determined to combat the gradations of sheerly existential malaise: "dust, disease, and flies." Surveying the Peking of 1955, Marker wryly notes that, nevertheless, "One still finds capitalists in China — but there are no more flies." (According to Catherine Lupton in her book Chris Marker: Memories of the Future , remarks like these were taken as "Communist propaganda" by the selection committee of the 1957 Berlin Film Festival, who, perhaps understandably sensitive to anything that might even be mistakenly interpreted as painting the Party in a cheerful light, demanded they be removed for the film to be projected at the good festival.) Sunday in Peking exists as a kind of fulcrum, a singularity on either side of which incessantly oscillate The China of the Future, and The Pekingese of Today (1955).
Marker films the vision of a nation that views itself as decidedly new, or at least one that puts on its best game-face. In this Tomorrowland, pre-adolescent gymnasts garbed in lantern-red sweatsuits demonstrate their maneuvers for the camera; ever Marker, he praises "these young athletes, lean as cats..." But through the filmmaker's images and narration, one perceives an irony in the very unironic, un-self-aware screen of Ersatz that seems to unfold everywhere: Peking on one hand contains a "model district" with a "model school" and its "model girls"; elsewhere, "the whole town is a display-stand for ancient China."
He continues: "Let us say no more about History — in the gardens during the afternoons History goes on. So long shut away behind its symbols, China is now called upon to reveal itself, and we are required to understand these sensitive faces: these men, these women, these children, with whom we shall have to share History as we shall have to share our daily bread." He turns to the Peking Zoo, with its lovers "chatting tenderly about the Five-Year Plan." There's a scene out of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, were he removed to the Summer Palace more than thirty years on from his death: "[T]his Mongol Versailles... [...] All this is as remote as China, and as familiar as Hyde Park."
He concludes Sunday in Peking: "I wonder whether China itself is not the sabbath of the whole world."
Other writing about the films of Chris Marker at Cinemasparagus:
(posted in 2007, and including a note in the Comments from Chris Marker himself)