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Movie Review: 'Wuhan Wuhan'

Directed by: Yung Chang
Available on Google Play, YouTube
Unrated, 90 minutes

The coronavirus pandemic may be well into its third year, with cases rising yet again and more waves expected in the fall, but it’s remarkable how far our knowledge of the disease has progressed since it first appeared in late 2019. Say what you will about government responses and the collective societal reaction to the disease, but at least we know now how the virus spreads, we know what it does to the body, we know how to treat it, and, to some extent, we know how to prevent it.

A scene from "Wuhan Wuhan.”  (Courtesy photo)

“Wuhan Wuhan,” Yung Chang’s (“Up the Yangtze”) documentary about the city where the pandemic began, takes us back to the lockdown of spring 2020, when all these things were still mysteries. It may bring back memories of a scarier, more uncertain time, but it’s not a painful watch. Rather than a compendium of the misconceptions and mistakes of the early pandemic, Chang’s film focuses on regular people caught in the turmoil, struggling to adjust to the new reality of pandemic life.

We meet a young married couple, Yin and Xu, bickering listlessly as the lockdown drags on. Xu, 37 weeks pregnant with their first child, laments that they didn’t finish their preparations before the lockdown made it near impossible; Yin, going stir- crazy, volunteers as a driver for medical personnel, shuttling doctors and nurses from their quarantine hotels to the hospitals of Wuhan.

It’s in the hospitals that Chang finds most of his subjects: a physically and emotionally exhausted ER chief; a nurse flown in to assist Wuhan’s overwhelmed health care workers; a mother and son stuck quarantining in a convention center alongside thousands of other Covid patients; a psychologist making the rounds offering what comfort she can. “Any patients in your group need therapy?” she asks a doctor. “Everyone here needs therapy,” he cuts her off, “including me.”

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people (New York City, by comparison, is home to 8.5 million), but in the B-roll footage of “Wuhan Wuhan,” the streets are eerily empty, almost ghostly, the normal sounds of city life muted, the skyline often covered in gray fog. An occasional siren cuts through the silence, but little else. Like their quiet city, the personalities of “Wuhan Wuhan” largely bear their burdens with stoic dignity. When Susu, a nurse quarantining in isolation, talks to her young daughter over the phone, the girl begins to cry; “Don’t throw a tantrum,” Susu calmly says, the stress evident in her face but never bubbling up to the surface.

The film is full of these poignant fly-on-the-wall moments, moments that speak to the depth of the fatigue the pandemic has caused, as well as to the conflicting feelings toward it. “How can a doctor be scared? I can’t treat anyone if I’m scared,” asserts a doctor in Yin’s backseat as they drive to the hospital, while in another scene, the ER chief, Dr. Zheng, confesses that he’s asked a friend to look after his child if he dies. “I’ve told nobody else this,” he says directly into the camera, on the verge of tears. The patients, too, are a mixed bag, from the irritable ICU patient dubbed “Grumpy Grandpa” by the nurses, to the patients who step forward to make sure the camera captures them singing Dr. Zheng’s praises.

It’s a complex, if conflict-averse, portrait of Wuhan, focusing less on the pandemic’s origins and its spread and its death toll, and more on the hardworking, dutiful people living through it. The pandemic, Chang implies, could have begun anywhere; Wuhan’s status as Ground Zero ultimately matters little. Thanks to the humble characters we meet and the anecdotes that paint a recognizable picture of lockdown life, we eventually feel the same way. The Wuhan of Chang’s rendering is unremarkable, which is maybe the very thing that makes the city a remarkable point of origin for this era-defining crisis.

“Disaster is an abnormal event,” Dr. Zhang, the psychologist, reassures a group of patients in one scene. “Every single emotion we have during this is normal.” A documentary about the early days of the pandemic could easily have been interrogative or polemical, making use of all we now know, but instead, like a deep, calming breath, “Wuhan Wuhan” takes time to acknowledge the humanity behind the hardship of the last two years. It may not be informational, but it’s still instructive.

Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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