Five students in Paris share an apartment, but their political conscience has been raised to such a level that they feel they should take direct action to instigate real change in the society they view as stagnating and corrupt. Their solution? Everyone should adopt the ideals of Chairman Mao, as they have done, as they admire the Chinese version of Communism more than any other system, even above the Soviet Union's implementation of Marxist-Leninism. These students are drawn from all strata of French society, from working class to upper class, but can they really get their act together?
Jean-Luc Godard's film has long been seen as a clear precursor to the student riots in Paris during 1968, as after all the main characters are very much the kind of people who started the unrest off, and this effort seems torn from headlines as yet unwritten. But the director exhibits an unexpected sense of humour, as if he is not entirely behind the pontificating of these students, and believe me there is a lot of pontificating; although at the time much of La Chinoise was received unironically, there are strong signs that Godard was somewhat unconvinced by the theories he gives voice to.
This looks very much of its time now, and the technique mixes talking heads with such imagery as frames from comic books, significant photographs, and slogans that are often simply reduced to a single word. It's still arresting even now, but you must have a tolerance for what seems while you're watching to be a near-endless stream of talk as the characters lecture both you and each other. There are pointed anecdotes, as when Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud, of course) will regale us with tales of revolutionaries pulling stunts, or when Yvonne (Juliet Berto) informs us of her background, as the others do, and reveals she has turned to prostitution to fund them.
But there's always a sense that these five are merely playing with the ideas, and the notion that they should use force to make the change they wish to see occur is not necessarily endorsed by Godard. When they discuss these things, they are often shown posing with toy weapons - a radio that turns into a gun, a bazooka - that suggest they are out of their depth when thinking that violence is a proper way to deal with their issues. Sometimes the images are almost mocking, such as when a toy tank is bombarded with copies of Mao's red book in a visual metaphor that has you wondering if Godard was quite as revolutionary as he made out.
Or if he was, and his other films back up that stance, then perhaps he felt the best way to approach the subject in hand was through comedy. There are also personality clashes between the students that can be quite funny, as when Guillaume's girlfriend breaks up with him because their politics are not compatible - and she doesn't like his sweaters either. But there is plenty of room, oh how there is room, for debate, and near the end a discussion about how terrorism might not be the most ideal way to go about putting your point across may not dissuade the students from carrying out such an act (offcreen), but proves it causes more trouble than it solves - especially if you target the wrong person. Not exactly light-hearted, then, but not quite as heavy as all this food for thought might imply, and should give would-be rebels with a cause something to ponder.