When you hear about filmmakers in conflict zones, you may flash on countries like Syria or Afghanistan. The movies produced in theaters of war often follow a similar arc: The documentarian parachutes in to take stock of a catastrophe. The focus tends to be on rubble, blood and suffering — the spectacle. In her short, stellar career, the Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang has repeatedly returned to a less obvious conflict zone in which the war for proverbial hearts and minds mostly takes place through state propaganda.
Her latest, “In the Same Breath,” is a clear, razor-sharp look at the pandemic. And, as she did with her 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 her family for the New Year, a trip the two had made before. (Born in China, Wang has lived in the United States for years.) Over images of fireworks exploding in the night sky, she ruefully says that “this was the last moment I can remember when life still felt normal.” And then she fills the screen with a rush of images: a blur of hospitals, X-rays, news reports and other visions from our Covid-19 world.
Back then, few — and certainly not Wang — knew that all normalcy was quickly disappearing when she briefly left her son with her mother, flying back to the States. The same day she flew out, China began shutting down Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. By isolating the city, China was trying to contain the virus and the pneumonialike respiratory disease it caused. At the same time, people elsewhere were traveling for the Lunar New Year’s celebration (chunyun), which is thought to be the biggest mass migration in the world, involving billions of trips. You know the rest of this story, or may think you do: There was no stopping the virus, though, as Wang suggests, it surely could have been attenuated.
Agilely marshaling a wealth of found and original material — as well as 10 camera people across China, some of whom remain anonymous — Wang brings you back to the first stages of the pandemic, before the Wuhan shutdown, before the virus had been officially named. She pulls out cellphone videos, collects news reports and finds some extremely eerie surveillance footage from inside a clinic in Wuhan. It’s unsettling, at times haunting, to watch people just going about their business, sometimes jammed together in celebration or just living their everyday, poignantly normal life, while others cough, stagger into emergency rooms and, in some distressing images, lie helpless in the streets.
Some of this will be familiar given the enormity of the disaster and its coverage. And there are moments here that recall the recent documentary “76 Days,” an immersive account of the Wuhan shutdown from inside the city. Yet Wang brings new insights to the crisis, and she manages to both surprise and alarm you. She also quickens your pulse, and not just through the brisk editing, notably during the short period when she’s separated from her child. But even after her husband safely brings their son home, a sense of profound urgency — and mystery — suffuses the movie as she toggles between the past and near-present, and revisits what was known and what was hidden.
To that end, as she has in her earlier work, Wang shrewdly and methodically homes in on China’s propaganda machine, showing how misinformation shapes ordinary life, how it defines a people’s consciousness of themselves and of the country. She is unrelentingly hard on its leadership. Nothing if not a crack dialectician, she repeatedly underscores the disconnect between what was happening on the ground in China, in hospitals and elsewhere, and how the government reacted to a situation that was spiraling out of its control. In speeches, conferences and smiling news reports, officials and their mouthpieces insisted that everything was fine. It was a message that, as Wang reminds you with crushing lucidity, American officials were sending to their people, too.
One of the attractions of Wang’s work is how she inserts herself into her movies in a way that never slides into solipsistic narcissism. Rather, she uses her own history and identity — as a daughter and as a mother, as a Chinese national and as an American transplant — to open up other histories and identities, telling stories that are invariably greater than any one person.
If “In the Same Breath” — the title becomes more resonant with each new scene and shock — were simply about China and its handling (mishandling) of the pandemic, it would be exemplary. But the story that she tells is larger and deeper than any one country because this is a story that envelops all of us, and it is devastating.
In the Same Breath
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.
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