Berlinale Bloggers 2021
The Pandemic on and off the screen
Shengze Zhu’s film A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, featured in the Forum section at this year’s Berlinale, portrays Wuhan, a city transformed by the pandemic.
I started my day today reading the news from Brazil, where the pandemic has reached horrifying proportions again. As if the tragedy in Manaus were not enough, the whole country is now on the brink of collapse. In Porto Alegre, where I lived for a long time, the intensive care units are a hundred per cent full and containers have been set up to receive the dead bodies. I asked a couple friends whether they’re all right.
How can one write about film when present-day reality is so far beyond the pale? Perhaps the only way possible is to talk about films that are about the present. Isn't it one function of art to come to grips with reality? This is precisely what Shengze Zhu, a Chinese filmmaker based in Chicago, does in A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces.
Ghost townThe whole film is set in Wuhan, where the director grew up. It opens with images of a concrete desert: it’s March 2020, lockdown. A surveillance camera shows a deserted pedestrian zone. We gradually move out of the city centre to be introduced to the mighty Yangtze River, its banks. A few people are working, others are shopping, the cityscape is changing. As we contemplate images of the city and its transformation, we hear voiceovers of monologues drawn from letters in which people recount their everyday lives and their grief to family members “loved and lost” to Covid. The absence expressed and accentuated by these disembodied voices is also reflected in the images on the screen: wide-angle shots, a huge city with very little life.
While extremely beautiful and tender, the film also possesses a harshness that’s hard to describe. I couldn’t watch it through to the end. It’s just so brutal to realize how much life was lost with every single victim of the pandemic. At some point later on maybe I’ll manage to see the film again and find out what future it envisions in the end. In the meantime, all we can do is face up to the horrific reality of the pandemic.