It was a city remote enough from the rest of the world’s experience or knowledge of Chinese geography that we couldn’t place it on a map. But Wuhan’s name would enter the consciousness in infamy as a global pandemic burst out of this Hubei Province metropolis. It became a symbol of Chinese failings as a society and secretive totalitarian state.
Filmmaker Yung Chang’s “Wuhan Wuhan” is a documentary filmed by being embedded in the city of 11 million as “ground zero” of this devastating pandemic wrestled with COVID-19 and ordinary people faced up to the fear, the confusion and grim realities of a total lockdown.
Though other films have followed the drama of those earliest days there — “In the Same Breath” and “76 Days” — Chang’s film takes the unusual tack of personalizing the pandemic, and humanizing the first population trapped in it.
The “Wuhan Virus” and “Wuhan” as pejorative insult –American politicians who bungled and politized the pandemic were nicknamed “Wuhan Don” and “Wuhan Ron” — recede as we see put human faces on doctors, an expectant couple and others just coping with this extraordinary event that they didn’t cause any more than we did.
Jumping into the lockdown in Feb. 2020, we meet Yin, a factory worker on furlough who now works as a volunteer delivery driver for medical personnel, doctors and nurses he picks up from their homes or (in the case of those shipped in to help) from hotels to the city’s many hospitals and makeshift overflow wards in civic buildings.
A GoPro camera in his makeshift rideshare captures candid conversations between Yin and assorted unnamed “front line” responders. It’s “hard to see the end of this” right now, one nurse sighs. “The actual number (of infected and dying) is more than we know” right now, another admits.
They are as exhausted as the many viral video testimonials that medical professionals in the West posted during their darkest days. But these people, wrapped in Personal Protective Equipment of a more DIY nature until they get to work where they don hospital-provided protection, are speaking out in ways we never hear the People’s Republic allow.
At home, Xi, Yin’s wife, is concerned, eating and craving meat as she is 37 weeks pregnant. She’s about to give birth and as more than one rider tells Yin, “a hospital isn’t safe to be in right now.”
We hear and see government public address vans ride around passing on information and instructions, a chilling bit of “1984” Big Brother-speak about the fact that “the state has implemented number twelve notice,” a lockdown, and that everyone is ordered indoors. “Contact your local committee” if you have questions.
In the hospital, patients gripe and family members advocate for and pitch in to help ensure good care of their children or spouses. An officious nurse calls a rebelling 50ish man’s wife when she’s had enough of his “To HELL with treatment, I’ll just die here!”
The patients, like the hospitals, are numbered — impersonalized. But we see the people behind the bureaucracy.
The ER chief at one hospital, Dr. Zheng, respectfully argues with higher-ups about the quality of Red Cross-donated PPE, and we see the exhausted staff’s work-arounds. Staff members use magic markers to write each other’s names and titles on the disposable plastic outer wear. Custom embroidered scrubs and lab coats and name tags are among the casualties of the emergency.
A patient who has been there a while comes to the filmmaker and gives an impromptu testimonial.
“He is the best doctor here,” she enthuses (in Mandarin with English subtitles). “I only know his voice. I’ve never seen his face.”
Chang’s film doesn’t give us much of an overview, doesn’t investigate or judge, doesn’t dwell on the unsanitary “live” markets where the disease made the jump from animals to humans (the “lab created” myth has been floated and shot down repeatedly in the past two years).
He just lets us see a Wuhan version of what we watched on the nightly news play out in New York at the peak of the pandemic and shows us the faces, the hopes and fears of those coping, at a personal level, with this awful event that’s taken over their lives.
And he lets us hear in Chinese what we’ve heard in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish, a phrase that became global as this contagion tore through humanity in wave after wave.
“This is the new normal now.”
Credits: Directed by Yung Chang. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:30