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Go With the Flow

Burn the Film

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021)

There have been film festivals and reviewers characterizing “A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces” as a documentary. We are not going to do that, as such would be factually inaccurate. The film was shown in the Forum section of Berlinale, which “focuses on contemporary international cinema productions and eschews conventional distinctions, such as that between fiction film and documentary” – a category truly befitting it.

Filmed in Wuhan, China, before and during Covid-19, the film consists of a series of stationary shots in long takes. This is almost like a Tsai Ming-liang film without characters. We’d say without speaking parts, except the Malaysian-Taiwanese auteur’s new film, “Days,” has virtually no speaking parts. In Zhu Shengze’s “River,” there are characters speaking in voiceover narrations, but you don’t ever see any of them on screen. They read aloud handwritten letters addressed to loved ones who’ve perished during the pandemic.

Sometimes Ms. Zhu’s framing is so abstract that it takes a while for viewers to place it. People are the size of ants in some scenes. Ominous recorded announcements blasted in empty streets warning people of the pandemic aren’t subtitled. Twenty minutes in, viewers are still left wondering where this is all going. It’s not until fully 50 minutes later that we see a medium shot of actual human beings. The recurring motifs about the endurance of edifices, the permanence of concrete and steel, don’t register until even later.

“A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces” achieves the same meditative effect as Mr. Tsai’s films. But it’s not until the end credits that it finally fesses up to the fact that all those heartrending letters to the lost are in actuality fictionalized – a detail not translated for the non-Chinese-speaking audience even though festivals identify the film’s country of origin as U.S. of A. If you’ve sat through the film’s 87 minutes thinking it’s a documentary, the last-minute revelation/confession/disclaimer is deeply upsetting. In a way, the film is predicated on a lie of the same magnitude as ones told by Fox News and “In the Same Breath.” All those going into the theater expecting to learn how the Chinese have experienced the pandemic get told exactly what Ms. Zhu has thought they wanted to hear.


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