The city of Wuhan is one of those booming Chinese mega-cities like Chongqing, Shenzhen, and Tianjin about which hardly more is known of them in the West than their names. In the case of Wuhan, that all changed with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the winter of 2019-20; the city became famous overnight, as a site of fear and the subject of horrific headlines – which doesn’t mean, of course, that knowledge about the city actually increased.
The filmmaker Shengze Zhu was born in Wuhan in 1987, and although she has lived for a number of years in the United States, her native city continues to occupy the center of her work: since 2014, three of the four documentary films that she has made (co-produced with her partner, the artist and filmmaker Yang Zhengfan) have been set in Wuhan. These films, however, in no way resemble conventional city portraits.
The river in the title of Zhu’s most recent work, A RIVER RUNS, TURNS, ERASES, REPLACES, is the mighty Yangtze, which flows through Wuhan. The film is a portrait of a city on the river, a cinematic illustrated atlas of those zones in which city and river meet. It surveys border areas between water and land – shores, promenades, embankments – and shows bridges, barques, and ferries. The takes are static and they last a while, allowing time for the viewer’s gaze to wander. Often, the images let extremes collide: crumbling ruins in the foreground, with a colourfully illuminated bridge glittering against the night sky behind them.
The film also shows both people who work on the river and those drawn there to relax – people strolling, swimming, dancing the waltz (the film consists mostly of footage taken from before the pandemic). But people only ever occupy a small part of the images – they almost disappear into Zhu’s carefully framed wholes. Much more important are the urban border landscapes and the river itself.
In her debut film OUT OF FOCUS (2014), Zhu was already casting an idiosyncratic gaze on her native city. Wuhan has more than eight million inhabitants, approximately the same as New York, but the part of the city that she shows in this film is very limited: at first the focus is on an elementary school, before the film’s purview shrinks to a cramped one-room apartment. Both are located in Hua’anli, an impoverished district on the edge of the city, mostly inhabited by migrant workers. The point of departure for the film is a photography workshop that Zhu, who studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri, offered to children in Hua’anli.
„I was always interested in viewing the world through others’ eyes,” Zhu said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, and OUT OF FOCUS implements this interest in a very concrete way. The photographs by the girls and boys who took part in Zhu’s workshop become an integral component of the film. The sequence of moving images is regularly interrupted and suspended by photos that the children have taken of their school, their homes, and their neighborhood. Zhu adds a soundtrack to the photos, thereby building a bridge between the children’s images and those she filmed herself; she brings film and photography, her own material and that of others, into closer proximity; she „stitches” them together.
Later, the film concentrates on one girl, Qin, and her family of five, who live all together in a single cramped room. The film observes the teenager, sunk in her smartphone, persistently yet discreetly; the camera never crowds her too much. There are no close-ups; instead, as so often in Zhu’s films, there are long, static takes and, at most, slow pans which situate Qin in the space around her.
„For me, cinema is more about creating space and time through image and sound than about stories.”
OUT OF FOCUS is a coming-of-age story that avoids imposing a particular narrative or developmental arc upon its protagonist: „I’m against using the perspective, the experience, the background or the angle of the filmmaker to construct or impose something – and especially not to cause dramatic conflicts. That’s the last thing I want,” Zhu emphasized in the internet magazine Sixth Tone. Instead, she shows a series of loosely strung together daily scenes and actions: how Qin charges her phone, combs her bangs onto her forehead, eats dinner: „For me, cinema is more about creating space and time through image and sound than about stories.”
Because she found the interaction between mother and daughter during the dinner especially interesting, Zhu made it the subject of her second film. In 2016, she returned to Qin and her family: in a film of three hours’ duration and thirteen stationary takes, ANOTHER YEAR documents thirteen shared dinners. Thanks to the rigorous concept, a precise portrait is created of people who have left their village home and are trying, in the most difficult of circumstances, to build a life in Wuhan.
Voices of the marginalised
In many respects, Zhu’s films, and especially ANOTHER YEAR, are related to the independent Chinese documentary films that have often been received very favourably at Western film festivals in the last several years. Usually, these films feature people at the margins of post-socialist Chinese society. The films are presented in the mode of the purely observational documentary film: without commentary, without interviews, in long takes that are only loosely connected to each other narratively. Best known are the radical films of Bing Wang, which often stretch over many hours and seem both spartan and excessive at the same time. But even such an uncompromising approach can become conventional or cliché.
Zhu’s films captivate both because they adopt this formally strict, ascetic paradigm which has blossomed in independent Chinese cinema of recent years, but also because her films are always ready to throw their own stringency overboard. They are prepared to, in the best possible sense, be unfaithful to themselves and to hybridize the images and the narrative. In OUT OF FOCUS this occurs through the integration of photographs into the film, but also through shifts in emphasis – from the collective to the individual, from school to family, from the interior of an apartment to outside in the city – and back.
Zhu’s third film, from 2019, takes the filmic hybridization a step further and at the same time continues the interest in the production of images by amateurs that shaped OUT OF FOCUS. PRESENT.PERFECT contains not a single bit of footage filmed by Zhu herself, but is instead composed entirely of found material, livestreamed footage by Chinese internet users to be precise. Stylistically, this third film represents a turning away from the paradigm of the purely observational documentary film. Zhu herself, however, stresses the continuities in a discussion for the streaming service Filmatique: „I continue to be interested in people who live at the edges of Chinese society, people whose voices are often overlooked in mainstream cinema or in the media.”
In A RIVER RUNS, TURNS, ERASES, REPLACES, too, Zhu allows voices that are otherwise marginalised in the Chinese media landscape to surface, and she does it once more in a way that hybridizes the images, rendering them visible as a break or tear in the cinematic form; tellingly, those are exactly the places where the pandemic finds entry into the film. Four times, excerpts from letters are inserted, as onscreen text, over footage of the river. In these letters, people from Wuhan address relatives who died during the pandemic. As the credits make clear, these are not authentic letters; they are docu–fictions, texts that Zhu herself wrote on the basis of actual accounts – and so, in these moments, the documentary and observational mode of the rest of the film is ruptured.
This step into the docu-fictional, which is accomplished through the wedding of river images and COVID letters, might have to do with the difficulty of adequately representing the pandemic; it might also be a preventive measure against possible interference from state censorship. What is certain is that Zhu is a filmmaker who, with each of her films, keeps experimenting.
Elena Meilicke is a scholar of media and cultural studies and teaches at the University of the Arts Berlin.
Translation: Donna Stonecipher