Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wuhan was known simply as “River City,” due to its proximity to the Yangtze. Along its banks, the area is always in flux; new bridges are built, development sites mushroom. The fast-changing geography delivers the promise in the city’s motto: “Wuhan, Different Everyday!” What if something is irremediably lost amidst the fast-moving progress? In A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, which recently had its world premiere at Berlinale, Wuhan-born filmmaker Shengze Zhu tries to answer that question.
“The city now is like an endless construction project,” Zhu tells Hyperallergic over a video call. Having moved to Chicago in 2015, for Zhu, going home meant having to adjust to a deeply transformed environment. “It’s really difficult to distinguish between a ruin or a building site, so it was really hard for me to feel familiar again.” These neverending transformations gave Zhu the idea for her documentary, which she started working on in the summer of 2016. “I wanted to examine the relationship between the residents and the space they inhabit.” She envisions the city as a stage on which she captures citizens carrying on with their lives. To do so, she decided that a static camera would dictate the visual grammar of the film. “By using static shots, I wanted to give the audience enough time to familiarize themselves with the landscape, to synchronize with the calm rhythm of the river flowing in the background.”
Through each composition, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces shows heterogeneous scenes of everyday life along the banks of the Yangtze. People take a dip, walk their dogs, dance to a Chinese riff on Auld Lang Syne, or assemble to watch a light show projected over the skyline at night. To counterpoint those quotidian occurrences, other sequences document the relentless urbanization. The cityscape is peppered with excavators plunging their buckets into the soil, while engineers look like tiny birds perched on the enormous scaffolding. When Zhu started filming in 2016, at first she simply used her smartphone. “The river site is enormous,” she remembers, “so there were many locations I had never been to.” These prolonged explorations not only helped her draw and retrace a morphing map of the city, but also connected her to the core of her film: “Gradually, I realized I was deeply interested in the concept of a transient space, and I started to look for all those places that are about to either be renovated or disappear.”
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is built upon dichotomies — old versus new, nature versus city. However, none resonate with deeper urgency than the invisible juxtaposition between the human drive to move on after a crisis and the need to remember what was lost to it. For a film about Wuhan coming out today, ignoring the impact of the pandemic was out of the question. Of course, Zhu wasn’t expecting her hometown to become infamous because of a virus, and she hopes that with this film, she could “add something to the existing portrayal of the city.” COVID changed the structure of the documentary, which is now assembled in reverse chronological order. It opens with excerpts of CCTV footage showing a deserted Wuhan at the beginning of 2020, and ends on images of a severe flood from 2016. In between are sections captured in different years. For anyone unfamiliar with how Wuhan looks, “it’s not clear that the footage isn’t shot over the same period of time,” but “for me, this structure means a lot.” Without knowing it, we’re shown that nature always heals itself. First we see people taking a stroll on a promenade over the river; later that same spot is flooded, the water reaching the roof of a pavilion. Nature transforms the landscape, but its cycle ensures that balance is eventually restored.
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is permeated with the notion of fluidity. The film’s form might be static, but its images suggest endless movement. The water in the Yangtze can’t stop flowing, and so does life. When the COVID lockdown on Wuhan was lifted, Zhu read an interview in which a resident welcomed the news. “I understand the urgency of moving on. I look to the future too. But for many people, life stopped that winter. How can we move on so fast?” she asks. In the name of progress, people are discouraged from dwelling on the past. At the same time, when remembering becomes unbearable, “wouldn’t it be better to forget everything instead?” Zhu doesn’t offer a clear-cut answer. Rather, she gives voice to those who grieve their loved ones through text on the screen. Against the constant reminder of the passage of time stands the Yangtze, placid and immutable. “I wasn’t in Wuhan when the pandemic hit, so I asked the river to help me understand. Among people’s different reactions and circumstances, some kind of consolation eventually emerged: That in the end, life moves on, many things will flow away, many others will be erased and replaced.” And yet, as one of the letters in the film comments, “the river doesn’t forget.”
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is currently playing various film festivals.