Review by Sean Boelman
Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Replaces, Erases is the most experimental of the documentaries that have come out about Wuhan in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Abstract yet undeniably powerful, Zhu’s film may test the patience of some but is a rewarding experience for those who are able to see the beauty in its images.
The movie is composed mostly of footage taken around a river that flows through Wuhan, China, which is now known for being the initial epicenter of COVID-19. Zhu’s intention with depicting this community prior to the pandemic does not matter anymore, though, as it has changed into an arresting exploration of how our perception of society changes over time.
This is a very avant-garde film in that it presents the footage in long takes with no audio narration. It’s runtime is brief, under ninety minutes long, but those who aren’t accustomed to seeing static documentaries like this may struggle to find the meaning to which Zhu is softly guiding them.
The footage that is used in the movie is absolutely marvelous. Although some moments are more aesthetic than others — a few sections involving construction vehicles stick out as particularly harsh — there is a clear purpose to everything that Zhu is depicting. And this sense of visual poetry that Zhu creates is impressive.
However, the thing that makes Zhu’s film so beautiful is that it shows optimism for society, both in Wuhan and in the world. The world is constantly moving, even when things slow down as they did in 2020. And like the river, life takes a winding path and it will only be a short time before things are back on track.
Zhu makes the interesting choice of starting the movie with security camera footage on a street in Wuhan as Chinese citizens begin to make their way back out into the world. It places the idea of rebirth in the mind of the viewer, challenging them to approach the situation from a more hopeful angle.
That said, the part that is likely to stick with viewers most are the letters which are presented through text superimposed over the footage. These letters from people to their loved ones that were lost to COVID present a moving bookend to the message of the film, a reminder of our ability to continue forward despite the unexpected progression of life.
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there will likely not be another COVID-19 documentary that matches this level of poeticism. It is not only the most nuanced portrait of this shared experience, yet also the most hopeful one.
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is now screening as a part of the Berlinale Industry Event, running virtually from March 1-5, 2021.