'Coronation': Film Review

CORONATION - Publicity still 3 - H 2020 
A sometimes spellbinding series of encounters that don't add up to much enlightenment.

Artist/filmmaker Ai Weiwei documents China's COVID-19 response over the period of Wuhan's lockdown.

The second film by Chinese art-world star Ai Weiwei to debut in 2020, Coronation looks at the first chapter of the COVID-19 story: the Wuhan lockdown.

Directed from afar by the now Europe-based artist, who had volunteers and employees send him hundreds of hours of footage, it's a very different work from 2017's epic-scaled, tightly focused refugee-crisis doc Human Flow. This one feels like a tone poem composed of impressions that will be useful to tomorrow's historians: Here's a passage set in a just-built hospital that could pass for part of a Frederick Wiseman film; there's a cooped-up generational contrast between a Party loyalist and her skeptical son; later come man-on-the-street accusations that the government's mishandling of events sent many to their graves needlessly — and without their loved ones to witness their final days, at that.

Ai has told the New York Times that he hoped to premiere the doc at one of the major fall festivals, but they (along with Amazon and Netflix) all passed. He reasonably wonders if a fear of antagonizing Chinese officials might be the cause — and given his fame, the widespread rejection does raise eyebrows. But it may simply be that, after eight months of enduring this stew of despair, bickering, fear and boredom, many viewers sitting down to an Ai Weiwei pandemic doc expect something much more barbed, righteous and cohesive than they get here. Though it has mesmerizing passages, Coronation is much less pointedly critical than promotional materials suggest, and displays little of the moral power seen in, say, the artist's response to the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, where thousands of schoolchildren died in poorly constructed classrooms.

The film begins, naturally, with the feel of a sci-fi dystopia: To the sounds of atmospheric electronics and otherworldly throat singing, a drone coasts above empty train tracks to a motionless train station. The city beyond is startlingly gray. Shots of hospital workers hosing each other down with disinfectants set the cautious mood.

In the first of many unrelated vignettes, a driver is confronted by a polite but suspicious worker at a gas station. She calls local police, who arrive and question him about his travel plans. He says he left Wuhan on January 23 (the day lockdown started) to celebrate the Chinese New Year in his hometown; he's just trying to return to his apartment.

Along with others scattered through the film, the sequence captures some impressions of life in a country that has gone all-out to stop an epidemic: ubiquitous thermometer-guns, credential checks, cell-phone tracking. One beleaguered delivery man seems to be serving vast apartment towers by himself. (Obviously he's not.) He sets up in a parking lot, and residents come to him hesitantly, keeping their distance and their makeshift safety precautions. One man, comically, wears a huge clear-plastic trash bag over his head and torso; it falls off as he bends to get his package.

We find ourselves in an ICU, where unblinking patients sometimes look dead even when the machines beside them signal life. Nurses struggle with intubation and other crises while wearing so many layers of protective gear they can hardly walk with speed.

Huge crews of young nurses arrive from other towns. They're welcomed with cheers, but are about to be swallowed: One of the film's most compelling chunks, hypnotic in its quiet boredom, follows a double-masked doctor down endless narrow hospital corridors and observes long rituals of putting on and taking off personal protective equipment. After a shift, we observe a doctor through a security monitor as someone walks him through the steps of disrobing safely. We watch him wash his hands, uninterrupted, for 75 seconds.

But after pulling us silently into the world of this built-in-a-minute hospital, the film releases us to a series of one-off encounters — interesting on their own, but never seeming sufficient to conjure a generalized picture of life in a metro area of 19 million people.

One man is living in a parking garage, stuck in his car. He came from another town, a construction worker called in to work on those pop-up hospital sites. But he can't find the right bureaucrat to give him the credentials he needs to go home.

Another man has lost his elderly father and needs to retrieve his cremated remains. But bizarrely, the father's employers are involved. His "work group" insists on joining him in an emotional errand he prefers to do alone, and he can't contact anyone who will set things right.

With no narration or onscreen titles, this episode will probably leave most Western viewers more confused than indignant. Most will probably also not fully appreciate a sequence paring a middle-aged man and the elderly woman we assume is his mother. She was a union head during her career, a devout communist. "People can move mountains when they work as one," she says, contrasting China's fight against the virus with what she's seeing on TV about America's early, disastrous weeks of outbreak. She's right about the need for decisive, unified action. But she also is blind to her government's faults, believing the propaganda she reads and scolding her more modern son.

In its last half hour, the doc finds people making fairly direct statements about how officials' actions in the outbreak's first weeks caused needless suffering. But in general, the film bears witness rather than trying to digest or explain what happened here and why. It trusts us to know enough of the story to draw our own conclusions, or, more likely, to have drawn them before the movie started. It's not hard to see why film-fest programmers — perhaps thinking of the haunting artwork "Straight," in which Weiwei had 90 tons of earthquake-twisted rebar made right again, to mourn the children who can't be restored — wanted something different.

Production company: Ai Weiwei Studio
Distributor: Ai Weiwei Studio (Available via Alamo On Demand)
Director-Producer: Ai Weiwei
Editor: Wang Fen
Composers: Ling Ling, Punkgod
In Mandarin
113 minutes