Erika Balsom on Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces
THE WINNER OF THE GOLDEN BEAR at this year’s Berlinale was Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), an irreverent social satire about a teacher who faces judgment by the community after a sexually explicit video she made with her husband—intended solely for private consumption—is leaked online. This send-up of righteousness and opprobrium is set during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Jude never missing a chance to mine distancing protocols and mandated mask-wearing for comic value and contemporaneity. At a festival disrupted by sanitary restrictions, with press and industry screenings occurring online in March, followed by a public event scheduled for June, it’s unsurprising that a film promising a timely reflection on the circumstances of the past year would find favor with the jury. High-profile Covid cinema has arrived. This raises a question: How, exactly, will filmmakers grapple with the pandemic—a sprawling, ongoing phenomenon that challenges conventional storytelling?
Jude’s ribald farce, which notably includes a twenty-six-minute pseudo-encyclopedic, essayistic interlude that cracks the narrative in half, offers one answer. Then again, it isn’t hard to imagine a version of Bad Luck Banging set in “normal” times. Remove the masks, position the actors closer together, and tweak a few lines of dialogue, and the teacher’s travails, along with all the issues they raise, would remain substantially the same. In Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021), which premiered out of competition in the Berlinale Forum, the specific demands of representing the pandemic feel less like afterthoughts—even though, like Bad Luck Banging, the film was in progress prior to Covid and subsequently retooled. It is an observational portrait of the artist’s hometown of Wuhan, built almost exclusively from static long takes of its landscapes. Zhu’s gaze is drawn to two broad and sometimes overlapping categories of image: views of demolition and construction sites, which figure as so many synecdoches of breakneck development, and vistas of the Yangtze River, the immense, muddy artery that runs through the city, making it a major transportation hub.
Around 500 BCE, Heraclitus said that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. In 2014, the fluvial city of Wuhan proclaimed something similar about itself, celebrating its brisk transformation by adopting the motto “Different everyday!” Both statements suggest that resistance to the ceaseless, indifferent flow of change is futile. Zhu recognizes the inexorable march forward, finding in it an important vocation for the moving image: to fix a record that will endure when so much else will not. A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces brims with the pathos of attempting to grasp hold of the transient. Favoring compositions in which people appear small, if at all, Zhu pictures the world in its vastness, untethered from any single human life. Smoggy grays predominate, connecting concrete, water, and sky in a dull palette that is periodically disrupted by public light shows on architectural facades and bridges, vibrant spectacles that illuminate the night with multicolored optimism for the future of the metropolis and its nineteen million inhabitants.
These images belong to the time before January 23, 2020, when Wuhan entered a strict lockdown, setting a precedent that would soon be followed elsewhere. Zhu, who left China for the United States in 2015, filmed these cityscapes on visits home between 2016 and 2019 with the intention that they form part of a project about urban redevelopment. After Wuhan became the epicenter of the novel coronavirus, she allowed the theme of loss to swell. The film opens with a pre-credits sequence of CCTV footage from the quarantine period, marked as such by a time stamp in the upper left-hand corner. From February 8 to April 4, the frame is eerily uninhabited, with only the rare street cleaner or passerby interrupting the quietude. Then, as air-raid sirens and car horns blare, an array of masked figures appear, standing still. For three minutes, shown in unbroken duration, the city pauses to inaugurate a national day of mourning.
Zhu then pivots to her own footage, ordered reverse-chronologically, beginning with crowds assembled at the river’s edge, where bodies press together without fear of contagion. Yet still the pall of grief does not lift. Four times across the seventy-five minutes that follow, handwritten text appears unobtrusively over the images, presenting short missives phrase by phrase. They are messages to the dead that Zhu adapted from the real experiences of those who lost loved ones—a partner, a grandmother, a father, a brother—to Covid. Bearing dates from August and September 2020, these intimate inscriptions occupy the same frame as the grand built environment, staging a collision of scale (between the personal and the infrastructural) and of time (from before the pandemic and after its worst days). The letters tell of regret, separation, and the passing months, and all mention specific topographical features of Wuhan, especially the river and its bridges, those lodestones of the film. The city figures as a bond among the narrators, one that also connects them to their addressees, providing a common experience of place that draws a wide circle of belonging, holding separate lives—including some now over—in relation to one another, in shared vulnerability and in shared memory.
Around 500 BCE, Heraclitus said that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. In 2014, the fluvial city of Wuhan proclaimed something similar about itself.
Here, as in previous works, Zhu uses a minimalist structure to organize an archive of images of contemporary China that contests both state-sanctioned narratives of triumphal modernization and the gelid stereotypes that proliferate in Western mass media. In Another Year (2016), she captured thirteen meals shared by a migrant family over fourteen months in real time; the chapters of Present.Perfect. (2019) comprise recordings of personal livestreams that attracted miniscule audiences, footage that would have vanished were it not for the filmmaker’s intervention. In the face of myriad forms of disappearance, Zhu hoards traces of what others might deem not worth keeping. Her pared-down style enables stray details to command attention, shattering preconceptions and resensitizing perception. She allows the particularities of life to unfurl in their continuousness, refusing the pervasive impulse to channel the mess and magnitude of existence into the reassuring coherence of character-driven story arcs.
In their 2018 manifesto, “Beyond Story,” scholars Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow warn that such hackneyed formulas, familiar from fiction filmmaking, today exert an ever-tighter grip on documentary, with significant implications for the latter’s epistemological and political possibilities. As they point out, “This dominant mode of cinematic storytelling—developed to serve commercial interests—privileges individuals over collectivities, people over their environments, human will over systemic forces.” The problems of abiding by such conventions when grappling with a subject like the pandemic are clear: To inhabit the tidy logic of story would be to privatize the issue, to indulge the neoliberal fantasy that personal strength and resilience are all one needs to come out unscathed. But immunity, as Eula Biss presciently noted in her 2014 book on the subject, is “a common trust as much as it is a private account.” The pandemic tramples the myth of corporeal autonomy, demanding to be considered at the scale of entire populations, even as it penetrates to the core of the self in ways that resist generalization and deserve recognition. Zhu accommodates this tension, acknowledging the need to think beyond the enclosure of individualism while never relinquishing a stake in the affective realities of lived experience.
The history of documentary is populated by a rich array of forms that exist at a distance from stories that center individuals. One with special relevance for A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is the city symphony, a genre primarily associated with the 1920s, when filmmakers from Berlin to São Paulo and beyond took the metropolis as their protagonist. Films like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) adopt a disjunctive montage aesthetic, as if seeking an energetic visual language to mirror the shock and bustle of city life. Roughly one hundred years later, Zhu has made a film starring Wuhan in which the frenzied excitement of the symphony has given way to the calm reverence of the requiem. The expatriate filmmaker mourns those who passed away while also advancing an elegy for something less tangible: a feeling of collectivity and rootedness. The film’s somber tone should not be mistaken for resignation, however; in form and content, the film defiantly refuses the logic of privatization, countering the creep of worldlessness. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than in a coda comprising a series of old photographs, some dating back to the ’50s, of groups of people posed together, mostly on the banks of the Yangtze. The song “Drunk with City” by the Wuhan-based punk band SMZB plays on the soundtrack, breaking the relative silence with a riotous ode to the intoxicating experience of being out in the streets in the place where one was born and will die. In almost every snapshot, there is a bridge. Connecting one side of the city to the other, belonging to everyone and no one, it is an emblem of public life, one that remains constant while the years pass and the water runs underneath.
Erika Balsom is a reader in Film Studies at King’s College London.