'In the Same Breath': Film Review | Sundance 2021

In The Same Breath
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A bruising gut punch.

Nanfu Wang follows 'One Child Nation' with an eye-opening investigation for HBO of the COVID-19 outbreak and the common thread of misinformation from both Chinese and American leaders.

In the closing moments of her blistering account of government and media mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic in both China and the U.S., director Nanfu Wang says: "I have lived under authoritarianism and I have lived in a society that calls itself free; in both systems, ordinary people become casualties of their leaders' pursuit of power." Like last year's 76 Days, the first half of Wang's film is an urgently immersive recap of the chaos that gripped Wuhan at the start of the outbreak in early 2020. The second half turns its haunted gaze to the arrival of the virus on American shores, and the refusal to heed ample warning signs and contain the foreseeable spread.

Like her enthralling 2019 feature, One Child Nation (co-directed with Jialing Zhang, who serves here as a producer), Wang's new film airing on HBO this year benefits immeasurably from the insights of her dual background. She grew up in China believing Communist Party propaganda was the norm, but emigrated to America nine years ago, starting a family here and altering her perspective. The director's personal investment is evident throughout, from the panic to get her 2-year-old American-born son home to safety after a Chinese New Year visit, to concerns about her mother, who lives in a city 200 miles east of Wuhan.

But even when accessing the situation remotely via camera operators and citizen journalists on the ground, Wang deftly balances factoids with first-hand experiences to show the emotional cost, both for people unable to say goodbye to their loved ones and front-line health care workers and funeral home staff, absorbing the trauma of unrelenting losses. The eloquent solemnity of row upon row of new gravestones in a Wuhan cemetery strikes a plangent chord as Wang reflects on authoritarian leaders using national crises to push through autocratic measures.

The film is bookended with footage of New Year's Eve celebrations in Wuhan, at the start and end of 2020. A spectacular light show animates the skyline and the majestic bridge that spans the Yangtze River, as balloons float above and crowds pack the streets and squares, much like cities across the world. Against a backdrop of proud Communist Party pageantry and patriotic song, President Xi Jinping addresses the nation the next morning, promising a landmark year of prosperity. A news bulletin later that day about Wuhan police punishing eight people for spreading online rumors of an unknown pneumonia gets lost in the festivities.

"That was the last moment I can remember when the world still felt normal," says Wang in economic narration that punctuates the film, which traces the earliest infections of the virus to December 2019.

Even if you followed the news at the time, the account here of the COVID-19 outbreak is dizzying, and the Chinese government's withholding of information all too familiar from what happened in the U.S. in the months that followed. After initially downplaying the threat and denying the risk of human-to-human transmission despite overflowing hospitals, people dying in the streets and others turning to social media to seek treatment access, China's state news media framed reports as a display of national strength to conquer adversity.

With 1,500 reported cases in China, Wang began campaigning with American news outlets for coverage, but initially, no paper pursued the story. So she contacted local camera people to shoot footage in Wuhan hospitals, where both patients and hazmat-suited medics either clam up or respond with extreme caution due to government restrictions on information. Nonetheless, there are moving glimpses of suffering behind the gag order, such as an elderly man hospitalized with a relatively mild infection, desperately trying to see his severely ill 31-year-old son, lying intubated, silent and out of reach.

Wang broadened her network to contact doctors from private clinics, including one near the seafood market identified as the possible point of origin for the virus. The closed-circuit video footage of countless patients coming in with flu-like symptoms over four days in December indicates the scale of the pandemic to come. A doctor from that clinic was infected and turned away from one city hospital after another, informed there was no treatment available even after a C-scan revealed damage to his lungs. That man's widow, who last saw him being taken away by an ambulance, is one of several citizens emboldened by their grief to speak out.

A two-week annual congress meeting was a bad time to announce the spread of a new SARS-like virus, so it wasn't until Jan. 20 that state news media conceded the risk of contagion. Three days later, Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, went into lockdown, with hospitals immediately overflowing and ambulances being turned away. Wang and co-editor Michael Shade assemble these establishing chapters into a propulsive, often deeply distressing narrative, enhanced by a score from Nathan Halpern that's alternately mournful and suspenseful.

Accounts of patients succumbing to asphyxiation, some of them dying in hospital lobbies while waiting for a bed, are by now familiar but no less shocking, especially when contextualized against the positive spin of news stories intended to inspire confidence and hope, heralding doctors as "angels in white." "The government was telling us where to look, while also telling us where not to look," says Wang.

That situation is mirrored in the U.S. once news finally penetrates the national bubble, met by Donald Trump's "totally under control" reassurances. The famous soundbites about the virus being gone by April with warmer weather are coupled with the urging of authorities at both State and Federal levels for Americans to continue with their normal lives and not be overly anxious. (To her credit, Wang includes a clip of Anthony Fauci among those early voices stating that masks were not necessary.) But the alarming acceleration of infections in New York through mid-March told a different story.

Like Wuhan, America's largest city went overnight from hearing that the virus posed minimal threat to finding itself under lockdown, a shift elegantly captured in the empty halls of Grand Central Station and rows of boarded-up storefronts.

Some of the film's most stirring material is the testimony of U.S. health care workers, whose requests for more detailed information and personal protective equipment were met with evasive responses from the CDC, where the official position oscillated daily. One nurse recounts being disciplined at a hospital for bringing in her own masks to work, while others were fired after expressing safety concerns. Emotional interviews convey the lasting effects of trauma and depression.

What's most infuriating is the way a country supposedly benefiting from freedom of information ended up being a victim of the same kind of manipulated data flow that no doubt increased the death count in China. The official toll in April there was 3,335, but anecdotal evidence gathered by Wang and others points to a number possibly ten times greater.

Even more maddening is the footage introduced of protesters in various U.S. cities waving signs that say "The Cure is Killing Us" or "Shut Down the Lockdown" — railing against mandatory masks as a violation of their liberties and spouting conspiratorial theories about a hoax, or a "plandemic" patented by Bill Gates.

The corrosive effects of widespread mistrust in the media and medical authorities, and a government with an elastic attitude toward facts and science, are all too evident. Even more so when those images are measured against shots of body bags and cardboard coffins stacked up in corridors as the U.S. achieves the distinction of the world's highest infection rate and death count, while Chinese state news points a finger at America, calling the COVID handling a failure of democracy.

The parallels as well as the contrasts of government deception in both countries are enough to make your head spin as you wish for a do-over, which Wang does when she rewinds to that first New Year's Eve and maps out a different trajectory. The film ends before the first vaccines are approved, meaning it tells a grim story that hopefully soon will turn a more positive corner. But as a hard-hitting record of a hellish year, this essential work will only gain in value over time. It's a testament to the bravery of the filmmakers, many of whom (camera people, drone photographers, field producers and production assistants) are credited anonymously to protect against Chinese government retaliation.

One of the most important questions Wang asks is what have we learned, and what protections are in place to stop us going down the same disastrous road in the next global crisis. The answer would seem to depend on who's in power, and what they have to gain by controlling the narrative.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Motto Pictures, Little Horse Crossing the River, Little Lantern Company
Distribution: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Nanfu Wang
Producer: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
Executive producers: Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Cinematographers: Matt Yu, Michelle Gao, R.C. Song, K. Yang, Jarred Alterman, Yuanchen Liu, Tom Bergmann, Martina Radwan, Michael Shade, Peter Alton, Rex Miller, Sam Rong, Gil De La Rosa, Paul Szynol
Music: Nathan Halpern
Editors: Nanfu Wang, Michael Shade
99 minutes