The film bills itself as the first feature documentary on the coronavirus, cutting-edge work produced and edited in recent months. And while that haste meant sacrificing some of the meticulousness of the filmmaker’s designs – his favorite drone photography doesn’t have so much of the fascinating mandala quality exhibited in his previous Human Flow doc – it’s remarkable how he maintains his Style elements despite the second hand shot. In his signature legato long takes, he reconstructs a large image of the planet from intimate snapshots of his smaller tragedies. He looks first at the landscape of Wuhan itself, its expanses of ruin bathed in a rigor-mortis gray, then on the people who survive there.
Many of them are grappling with a dilemma the world is now facing, with personal freedom and public safety starting to feel like opposing forces. A first passage follows a couple who try to return to Wuhan, their movements are regulated and limited. It is easy to understand why these measures were put in place, and yet it is difficult to accept the side effect of increased surveillance, unintentional or not. Much of the Chinese counteroffensive involves collecting and controlling information with unprecedented precision. It sounds like a dystopia for the government to know where everyone and everything is at any given time, but it is also perhaps the most effective and efficient way to quell a scourge.
The sheer scale and authority of the Chinese state has allowed its agencies to deploy street cleaning robots and erect maze-like hospital facilities virtually overnight, and yet those same qualities have rendered assistance widely. inaccessible person by person. We meet a grieving son, forced to make his way through a bureaucratic thicket just to appropriate his father’s ashes. More Kafkaesque still, a temporary construction worker leaves Wuhan only to find that he cannot return to his home in Henan or return to the city he came from, with no other option but to live out of his car. (A heart-wrenching one-line footnote in the press kit says he entered Henan after filming was completed, where he then committed suicide.)
A more explicitly ideological component takes shape in the second hour, crystallized in a political and media dispute between an older former revolutionary and her more pragmatic son. She categorically dismisses quarantine as a blatant violation of his freedoms, as he tries to reconcile his belief in President Xi Jinping’s plan with his healthy skepticism about his message. The variations on their generational conflict play out less directly throughout the film; a cheerful instructor teaches a group of young people a dance routine encouraging handwashing in one scene, and in another, a demonstration blends party allegiance and commitment to the cause of security in one nationalist spirit.
Alternating between disarming urban beauty and sinister techno-surrealism of hoverboards and thermometer guns, Ai commemorates a moment with profound consequences. Even after the virus has been eradicated, its human-made consequences will continue for decades. He poses this unnatural disaster as an inflection point for the ongoing struggle between obedience and individuality that his entire career has followed – a glimpse of the apocalypse not of arbitrary physical ruin, but of an organized campaign. He’s sounding a universal alarm: as we are just trying to get through, they’re trying to get all they can.