At the end of 2019, the most populous city of Central China, Wuhan, gains sad notoriety for being the first place to have an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Especially to people who have never heard of the capital of Hubei Province, the name of the city will likely be forever remembered in conjunction with Covid-19. Shengze Zhu’s film A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces shows that Wuhan is much more by exploring the urban spaces along the Yangtze River in the wake of the pandemic.

The documentary begins with CCTV footage of an empty shopping street. Because of the complete motionlessness, it is impossible to discern whether we are looking at a still image or video. The windows of the stores are boarded up, no single human being is out on the streets; only the timecode in the upper left corner is ticking. The date is February 8th 2020: about two weeks after the city has been quarantined. As weeks go by, we see the occasional human enter the frame: delivery bikes, street cleaners, people dressed from head to toe in protective gear. Then in April, the lockdown is lifted. A wisp of animation is brought back into this street.

The rest of the feature consists of beautifully and deliberately framed long shots, each showing different stages and aspects of life in the city. Elements of industry and labour, as well as citizens bathing and swimming in the river before a hazy backdrop of smog. One can’t help but consider these images as an interaction and ponder the impact of humanity on our environment. On top of being at the centre of the virus outbreak, the lives of Wuhan’s citizens are also threatened by a flood in the summer of 2020.

There is no spoken dialogue in A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, but fragments of people’s stories are told in the form of letters. This is a powerful choice by the filmmaker as it functions to balance the visuals, which work on a cerebral level, with the emotional impact of people losing their relatives.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously spoke of change: “A man cannot step into the same river twice: for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This notion has rarely been more tangible to the public than at this very moment, for regardless of however and when this pandemic is resolved, it has made a lasting impact on all of us. A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces adds a literal element: the river Yangtze, its place in Wuhan’s lives and how it is an oxymoron of constant change, for better or worse.


Selina Sondermann

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces does not have a UK release date yet.

For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.

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