In the west, governmental response to the coronavirus has been marked by sluggishness, miscommunication and widespread disorder at the highest institutional levels. From the Trump White House to Johnson’s Number 10, citizens have been left in the dark or left to die as official policy and implemented containment programs offer far too little, too late. But in Asia, it would seem that they did everything right. Swift and sweeping action “flattened the curve” and kept one of Earth’s most populous countries to a casualty count under 5,000 – a figure dwarfed by the death toll in the United States.
The harrowing new documentary Coronation, made remotely and in secret by the artist-activist Ai Weiwei while stuck in Europe, conducts a slow-cinema investigation of how the cradle of this pandemic rose to best it. An assortment of amateur cinematographers in the viral epicenter of Wuhan captured stunning and terrible footage of a city plunged into crisis, their contributions organized under Ai’s pointed, critical vision. In these meditations from an emergency, he arranges a dualistic picture of modern China as a force of great might, for better and for worse. The formidable national apparatuses that empowered the Chinese people to mobilize themselves and minimize the damage cut both ways, illustrating the hazards of a heavily centralized federal system along with its potential to do good. Ai frames this global cataclysm as an exacerbating force, a trial by fire that accents and amplifies the already-simmering tensions between the individual and the state. Through this mosaic of common life in an uncommon time, he asks the troubling question of whether submission must be the cost of protection.
The film bills itself as the first feature-length documentary about the coronavirus, an up-to-the-minute rush job produced and edited over the past few months. And while this haste meant sacrificing some of the meticulousness of the film-maker’s designs — his favored drone photography doesn’t have so much of the mesmerizing mandala quality on display in his previous doc Human Flow – it’s remarkable how he maintains his elements of style despite secondhand shooting. In his signature legato long takes, he pieces together a grand image of the planet from intimate snapshots of its smallest tragedies. He trains his gaze first on the Wuhan landscape itself, its expanses of ruin bathed in a rigor-mortis grey, and then on the people surviving within it.
Many of them wrestle with a quandary now faced all over the world, as personal freedom and public security have started to feel like opposing forces. An early passage follows a couple attempting to drive back into Wuhan, their movements regulated and restricted. It’s easy to understand why these measures have been put into place, and yet it’s difficult to accept the side-effect of increased surveillance, unintended or no. Much of the Chinese counteroffensive involves the collecting and control of information with unprecedented precision. The government knowing where everyone and everything is at any given time sounds like a dystopia, but it may also be the most effective and efficient way of quelling a plague.
The scale and authority of the Chinese state enabled its agencies to deploy street-cleaning robots and erect labyrinthine hospital facilities practically overnight, and yet those same qualities made assistance widely inaccessible on a person-by-person basis. We meet a grieving son, forced to slog through a bureaucratic thicket just to take ownership of his father’s ashes. More Kafkaesque still, a temporary construction worker leaves Wuhan only to find he cannot return to his home of Henan or re-enter the city from which he came, with no remaining option but to live out of his car. (A heartbreaking one-line footnote in the press kit states that he did gain entry to Henan after filming completed, where he then took his own life.)
A more explicitly ideological component takes shape in the second hour, crystallized in an argument over politics and media between an older former revolutionary and her more pragmatic son. She rejects the quarantine outright as a clear violation of her liberties, while he tries to reconcile his belief in the President Xi Jinping’s plan with his healthy skepticism about his messaging. Variations on their generational conflict play out less directly all over the film; a cheery instructor teaches a group of young people a dance routine encouraging washing of the hands in one scene, and in another, a demonstration blends allegiance to the party and commitment to the cause of safety into a single nationalist spirit.
Alternating between a disarming urban beauty and a grim techno-surrealism of hoverboards and thermometer guns, Ai memorializes a moment of far-reaching consequence. Even after the virus has been eradicated, its manmade consequences will continue for decades. He posits this unnatural disaster as an inflection point for the ongoing struggle between obedience and individuality that his entire career has tracked – a glimpse of apocalypse not from arbitrary physical ruin, but from an organized campaign. He sounds a universal alarm: while we’re just trying to get through, they’re trying to get all they can.