Yung Chang, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, takes an inside look at the city where COVID-19 was born.
After all of the allegations, conspiracy theories, and general misconceptions about the coronavirus’s origins in China, the sensitive, humanistic Wuhan Wuhan depoliticizes the subject admirably. It demonstrates how the Chinese response to the virus outbreak was remarkably close to that seen in hospitals around the world, though viewers might be more interested in pointing out subtle variations.
The film is directed by Yung Chang, a Chinese Canadian who is well-known on the festival circuit for films such as Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight, and produced by a team that includes Donna Gigliotti. It premieres at Hot Docs, where its topicality is sure to pique interest, even if its uncontroversial approach can only carry it so far.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people with eerily empty streets and highways, serves as the backdrop for a series of character sketches that run throughout the film. The date is February 2020, and the country is “two months into lockdown.” At the height of the epidemic, Yung Chang and his video crew seem to have had exclusive access to the city’s inhabitants and hospitals, bringing to life most of the anecdotal facts we’ve seen in news coverage. He ignores the issue of whether the virus originated in Wuhan’s wet markets and instead focuses on how local medical staff and selfless volunteers from other provinces collaborated on a mission that was both admirable and lethal.
Many that have been following the COVID-19 story this year — and who hasn’t? — will note how eerily close the hospital scenes are to similar scenarios from San Francisco to Milan. Doctors and nurses rush for PPE, hiding behind hazmat suits, masks, and goggles, writing their names and pinning pictures of themselves to their chests so patients can remember them. A former convention center has been transformed into a 2,000-bed “Fangcang” field hospital, which is full of actual, suffering patients whose faces have not been blurred out.Outside, there are flowers and prayers for Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor whose early warnings about the deadly virus were suppressed by the Chinese government until it was too late. This tribute to the brave doctor, however, is a blip in an otherwise upbeat doc determined to avoid all forms of controversy.
The most engaging of several personal stories is that of a young couple of out-of-towners, Yin and his nervous wife Xu. She is very pregnant and very fretful, worried about Yin’s job as a volunteer driver ferrying medical personnel to hospitals. (We are worried about how she is ever going to deliver the baby. But she does, in a scene of startling candor.) Although Yin wears full PPE and has no direct contact with his riders in the back seat, the risk he runs is evident. A small crisis arises when he has to hunt for a baby crib and can’t find one. Small stuff, maybe, but it comes across as genuine.
Other characters are too briefly delineated to care much about. A mother and her son count the days until they can go home from the huge field hospital. A stern psychologist is shown offering emotional support to traumatized COVID patients, while back home her own father is dying of cancer. An ER chief and a nurse staying in a special hotel talk to their families every night on video calls; they look like they could use counseling, too. The drama of these situations is never pushed to tragic lengths, making for far fewer tears than some TV news reports provoke.
Wuhan Wuhan makes its quiet mark through its natural approach to a society where people tend not to protest against the tight government lockout, without resorting to sensationalism. Volunteers like factory worker Yin, who insists on driving long hours in a hazmat suit to avoid boredom, on the other hand, seem to be driven by a concern for the collective that far exceeds Western values. The movie lets you think about these issues.
Though it was shot by a team of videographers, the production quality is evident, particularly in the interludes of Yin driving around the vast city of linked highways, past the startling architecture of endless apartment blocks and other snapshots of city life. Hualun, a Wuhan-based rock band, adds a lot with its volatile modern soundtrack, which directs without getting in the way and is mixed at low volume.
Production companies: Starlight Media Inc., SA Inc., in association with Kartemquin Films
Director-screenwriter: Yung Chang
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Peter Luo, Diane Quon
Executive producers: Donnie Yen, Cheng Yang, Yuki Zhang
Editor: Evita Yuepu Zhou, Zimo Huang
Venue: Hot Docs
World sales: 30West
Source: Hollywood Reporter