‘In the Same Breath’ Review: Wuhan 2019, or When Normality Ends

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When you hear about filmmakers in conflict zones, you can browse countries like Syria or Afghanistan. Movies produced in battle halls often follow a similar line: The documentary parachutes in to take stock of a disaster. The focus tends to be on the spectacle – rubble, blood and suffering. Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang has repeatedly returned to a less obvious conflict zone in his short, stellar career, where the proverbial battle for hearts and minds happens mostly through state propaganda.

The last one, “In the Same Breath” is a clear and sharp look at the pandemic. And as he did in his documentary “One Child Nation(Made with Jialing Zhang) Wang vividly fuses the political with the personal. In mid-January 2020, she flew to China with her toddler to visit family for the New Year, a trip the two had taken before. (Born in China, Wang has lived in the United States for years.) Over images of fireworks exploding in the night sky, she says sadly, “that was the last time I can remember that life still felt normal.” Then it fills the screen with a series of images: blur of hospitals, x-rays, news, and other images from our Covid-19 world.

Back then, few – and certainly not Wang – knew that all normalcy quickly faded when he flew back to America, leaving his son briefly with his mother. The day he flew, China began to shut down Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic. China was trying to control the virus and the pneumonia-like respiratory disease it caused by isolating the city. At the same time, people were traveling elsewhere. Lunar New Year celebration (chunyun), thought to be the world’s largest mass migration involving billions of trips. You know the rest of this story, or you may think you know: There was no way to stop the virus, but it certainly could have been mitigated, as Wang suggested.

Agile enumerating 10 videographers found across China, some of which remain anonymous, along with original material, Wang brings you back to the early stages of the pandemic before the virus was officially named, before the closure of Wuhan. He pulls out cell phone videos, collects news reports, and finds gruesome surveillance footage from inside a clinic in Wuhan. It’s unsettling, sometimes haunting, to watch people just mind their own business, sometimes getting stuck together at a celebration, or just living their daily, perfectly normal lives, while others cough, stagger to the emergency rooms, and lie helplessly in some harrowing footage. streets.

Given the scale and extent of the disaster, some of these will look familiar. And here are the moments that remind me of the last documentary “76 Days” is a gripping account of the closure of Wuhan from within the city. Still, Wang brings new perspectives to the crisis and manages to both surprise and frighten you. It also gets your heart rate up, especially during the short time she’s been separated from her child, not just through quick editing. But even after her husband has safely brought their son home, a deep sense of urgency and mystery pervades the film as he oscillates between the past and the present and revisits the known and the hidden.

To this end, as in his previous works, Wang subtly and methodically engages China’s propaganda machine, showing how misinformation shapes ordinary life and defines a people’s consciousness of themselves and the country. He is relentlessly tough on his leadership. If he is not a mad dialectician, he repeatedly highlights the disconnect between what is going on in China on the ground, in hospitals and elsewhere, and how the government is responding to a situation that is beyond its control. In speeches, conferences and good news, officials and their spokespersons insisted that everything was fine. It was a message sent by the American authorities to their own people, as Wang recalled with overwhelming clarity.

One of the intriguing aspects of Wang’s work is that he incorporates himself into his films without ever slipping into solipsistic narcissism. Rather, she uses her own history and identity as a daughter and mother, as a Chinese citizen, and as an American transplant to open up other histories and identities by telling stories that are invariably bigger than any other person.

“In the Same Breath” – the title resonates more and more with each new scene and shock – would be exemplary if it were just about (mishandling) China and its handling of the pandemic. But the story it tells is bigger and deeper than any country, because it’s a story that grips us all, and it’s devastating.

in the same breath
Not rated. Working time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.

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