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Wuhan, Different Everyday: Shengze Zhu on Berlinale 2021 Premiere A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces

Despite relocating to Chicago in 2015, Shengze Zhu has focused on her hometown of Wuhan throughout her career. Her first feature, Out of Focus (2014), is a creative portrait of the school-life of children from low-income families and the troubles they face. Her second, Another Year (2016), uses long takes to document the mealtimes of migrant worker families. Both are set in Wuhan but were made after she first left China in 2010 to study filmmaking in Columbia, Missouri. For Present.Perfect (2019), she widened her lens, creating a montage of live-streamers living across China entirely from desktop recordings of their broadcasts. Made in America, a sense of distance seems inherent to a project in which intimate connections with a cast of characters are mediated through the barrier of the screen. 

Her newest film, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, again looks at Wuhan but was also produced at a remove. Created using footage recorded during repeated return visits that Zhu took to the city prior to the city-wide lockdown in January 2020, the film explores her shifting feelings towards a landscape that has experienced seismic changes in recent years, even prior to the coronavirus outbreak that brought unwanted and unwarranted international scrutiny. Subject to constant expansion, the city—the largest in central China, with a population of more than 20 million people—has become something of a stage for China to showcase the scale and speed with which it can redevelop and reconfigure urban spaces.

Reshaped as a result of the pandemic, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces visualizes alterations in the physical texture and psychological terrain of this ever-changing city, acting as both a record of this rapid transformation and a memorial for the unexpected crisis that unfolded in the city during the film’s production. Opening with CCTV footage that depicts the end of the lockdown in Wuhan, A River progresses in reverse-chronological order, featuring a cycle of long-duration static shots of the city’s river-side landscapes punctuated by intermittent on-screen letters penned by various authors to family members who passed during the pandemic. Zhu uses a consistent visual style to create a clear sense of the city and its river, adopting a murky, muted palette of sea blues and concrete grays, favoring footage filmed from afar in which human figures are dwarfed by the enormity of the river itself and construction projects underway along its banks. Despite the restrictions that this formal rigor imposes, the film seems to open outwards with the arrival of each new letter, revealing both a sense of shared loss from a traumatic time recent enough to still seem raw. and the filmmaker’s own relationship with a place from which she has become geographically distant but to which she still remains emotionally proximate.

I talked to Zhu about her relationship to Wuhan and the river that runs through it, discussing how her film about the place and the people who live there changed over time in ways that she could not have initially anticipated.

Filmmaker: When did you start making this film and what inspired you to make it? How did it change over the period of production?

Zhu: I started shooting in summer 2016, and the final period of filming took place in fall 2019. That was the last time I visited Wuhan, my hometown. At first what drove me to this project was a feeling of alienation or estrangement. I felt like the city was becoming increasingly unrecognisable to me every time I went back home. Since 2014, Wuhan has had this official slogan, “Wuhan, Different Everyday!,” which is very funny to me, because of course everything is different everyday. Since then, there has been continual construction and renovation projects. My original focus was on the city’s redevelopment and how the residents are coping with such rapid transformation, and how small and alienated you may feel in relation to this unprecedented scale of development.

I had planned to finish shooting last year and had a shot list to go through. What happened in Wuhan in 2020 completely ruined this plan—firstly because I couldn’t go back due to the travel restrictions, but also because I now felt that had to include what happened last year in this film. I couldn’t avoid it. So, I started to make a new film, a different one. The first idea that appeared in my mind was to structure the film in reverse chronological order. At the beginning of the film is the lockdown, then after is footage filmed in 2019, and after that comes footage from 2016. This was really important to me, because I think what happened last year should be considered a period and not a moment. It was something unprecedented that has had a profound influence on so many things across the city, and on me and on people around the world. I wanted to start from this point and move backwards, in order to try to contemplate what occurred. By looking at what happened, I believe we can gain an understanding of what could have happened, or what could yet happen.

Filmmaker: I’ve watched quite a few films about the pandemic recently, and your film is very different to the other films I’ve seen on the subject. It’s a more sensitive and subtle approach than most filmmakers would take.

Zhu: This film makes me nervous actually. I didn’t know how I should share the feelings and emotions that I have about my city with others. These are intangible feelings; there are lots of things that I don’t know how to convey. For many people, last January may have been the first time they ever heard about Wuhan, and it was in a very frightening and confusing context. I didn’t know how, after this, people would look at the city or at my experience of it. I was definitely worried.

Filmmaker: What it was like making a film about your hometown when have been so far away from it? Was it difficult to make such a personal film?

Zhu: At first it was. When Wuhan was in lockdown, I couldn’t work on anything, or think about anything else. Around last June, I realized that I really need to make this film as self-treatment. My closeness to Wuhan is important for me, because it makes this film feel personal and gives it a different perspective to the other films being made about Wuhan at the moment. I consider this an insider’s point of view. In my past work, I’ve always considered myself an outsider because after you finish the film you can walk away. It’s not your life, it’s somebody else’s and you can only be with them for a period of time. Afterwards, your lives become two paths running on parallel lines. But because this film is about my hometown, it feels different to me. I have this strong feeling that no matter how far I go from the city, I will never manage to leave it entirely. It is the place that has shaped my identity in countless ways. I can’t ever walk away from it.

Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask what feelings you have about the Yangtze River specifically. We have a big river, the Thames, in our city but I don’t feel like I have any feelings about it. I often barely even notice it, whereas this film is all about the river and its role within the city, as well as how people interact with it. 

Zhu: I feel personally attached to the river, Not just because the river is the symbol of the city—Wuhan means “River City”—but because my grandparent’s apartment was just a few blocks away from the river. It’s an integral part of my memory of the city. When I first started this project, the river was a showcase of the city’s rapid redevelopment; it was a catalyst of the growth. Then, after what happened in the last year, the river now feels like something that connects many ideas. For example, right after the lockdown I read an interview in which a resident says that all the pain and bad memories from this time will flow away just like the river, and the city will regain its vitality. I don’t know if a resident actually said this, or if it’s something the media made up, but it made me very sad and a little annoyed. I understand the urgent need to move on and look to the future, but what happened is important and we should not just leave it there and forget it. Meanwhile, some of my friends told me they can’t watch or read anything related to this experience. The act of recollection is unbearable for them. I was thinking about these two very different attitudes when I was trying to come up with a title for the film. I wanted something that suggests something inevitable: many old memories of the past will be erased and replaced despite what happened and what was real.

Filmmaker: Where did the letters that feature in the film come from? They add a great sense of grief which colors the way a viewer looks at the surrounding images.

Zhu: I wanted some kind of text to accompany the imagery. At first, I tried text taken from the news, or from Weibo or WeChat posts, but neither worked. I wanted something more personal. There are many sad stories surrounding the pandemic. Nobody was prepared for what happened; many people had things they wanted to say to the ones they loved but never had the opportunity to say. Eventually, I had the idea to use this format of letters written to those loved and lost. Some of them are stories from friends, or from friends of friends, and others are from strangers I connected with over the internet. I talked with these people, and used direct quotes in some instances and blended in my own interpretation or perspectives in others. In a way, these are my letters too.

Filmmaker: Initially I thought the first letter was from you, and then that the others were from members of your family. Then I realized they were just from various people.

Zhu: That is what I wanted you to feel in a way. I don’t use voiceover, and I don’t label the locations of the images or anything like that. I’m aiming for ambiguity, because I don’t want the viewer to see this as a sad story of a single narrator, or even of any specific person. I hope it can resonate with anyone and say something more universal than that.

Filmmaker: How did you decide the right visual style for this film? Many of the the shots are filmed from very far away, and the people seem very small within the frame. There’s a consistent style throughout.

Zhu: I like a static camera and a long take. This was settled upon at the beginning, because I really wanted the landscape to unfold at its own rhythm. I hope to create an experience that leaves enough time for the audience to contemplate, or just to linger along the river and be there too. Regarding the distance: at first I actually captured a lot more shots closer to people, where you could see their faces more clearly. While I was there shooting this film by the river, I had this feeling of being very tiny compared to the river, or to the rocks or the stones. I also had a feeling of ephemerality, like my life was short. The distance between me and other human beings I was seeing started to seem more pronounced, and I felt like a very small part of a large landscape. In the film I tried to recreate what I was feeling standing there filming.

Filmmaker: My next question is related to this. All of your films that I have seen have been structuralist in a way, or at least they all seem to have a certain visual grammar that is followed throughout. In Another Year, you observe 13 meals, in Present.Perfect, you only see the livestreamers from the perspective of the computer desktop, and this film is made of static shots and long takes, as you say. I’m wondering why you are so attached to this structuralist—if you want to call it that—way of working, to restriction and rigidity?

Zhu: I’m a little bit obsessed with the concept of time in cinema, and with duration as well. I’m interested in how a filmmaker can use image and sound to construct time and space for the audience instead of just telling them stories. The rules, or restrictions, or limitations, that I set for myself give me more freedom in some ways. Form is as important as content for me, and I’m very interested in experimenting with cinematic forms. That is the foremost thing for me, though maybe I can be too rigid sometimes. I’m thinking I may go in the opposite direction for my future projects.

Filmmaker: I think this rigidity can be a comfort for a viewer. When I see it used well, it makes me feel like the filmmaker knows what they’re doing. A structure gives me a sense that they’re in control and that they have an idea that they want to execute—something is happening and I now need to work it out. A film that your film made me think of was Chantal Akerman’s News From Home, so I’m wondering about your inspirations for this film in particular?

Zhu: James Benning. Many of his films, and also Peter Hutton. His films are quite different because many of them don’t have sound. Soundscapes are really important for me.

Filmmaker; This is a film about the recent present, but I wanted to ask lastly how you went about adding a sense of time and history, particularly through the end credits? Why did you decide to add these black and white photos that immediately make a viewer think about a Wuhan before 2016? Who are we seeing in those photos?

Zhu: As this is a film about the city and my memories of it, some of the people in these photos are my friends and family. Since the film is organized in reverse chronological order, I had been thinking of starting with some archival footage of the city. Wuhan has a very long history, but only recently do we have this concept of Wuhan as a named place. Originally it was three small towns, none of which were called Wuhan. These photos recall that time, going back to the 1950s at the earliest. That was one reason for including them.

The other was to express an idea of collectivism; they are all group photos. What happened last year was a collective experience for all of us and it is now part of our collective memory. China adores collectivism, this idea of a greater good that goes beyond the personal needs of the individual. China seems to have handled this pandemic very well compared to Western countries, but I think there are many reasons behind that. Collectivism is definitely a key one. Placing the importance of the group over that of the individual is what we have learned since we were children. In China, you follow all the requests or regulations that the authorities implement naturally and without question. Whereas here in the United States, there has been a year of discussion over whether or not you should wear a mask, and when an order was placed to stay at home, nobody followed it. In Wuhan, when the government said something, everyone followed.

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