How will historians of the future remember the lockdown that took place in China this past January during the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic? It’s very possible they’ll rely heavily on a new documentary by artist Ai Weiwei.
Titled Coronation and surprise-released online last week, the feature-length film offers a rare firsthand look at the pandemic in Wuhan, China, where life was largely brought to a standstill by one of the first known outbreaks of the virus. Shot between January and April by a combination of paid crew members and volunteers, the film is a disturbing, chilling work, and one that is likely to endure as a wrenching portrayal of how an unfortunate combination of biology, bureaucracy, and human error changed life in China—and around the world—in 2020.
Interspersed throughout Coronation. are images shot from above, as though from a drone or an airplane. They show a vacant Wuhan: skyscrapers empty of people, railways without trains, highways absent cars or trucks. Filmed against grayish skies, Ai makes the city seem positively apocalyptic, intensified by a soundtrack that sounds like primal screams put through a vocoder.
Although viewers are likely to come away remembering most strongly these horror-movie-like shots, the majority of Coronation is unlike those images. For the most part, the film focuses on regular people doing regular things—or, at least, things that have become regular in a time of pandemic. There are medical workers who don a stunning array of personal protective equipment, and there are people trying to cross barriers in tightly secured areas. There are people who muse on the disinformation the government may be disseminating, and there are mail carriers who must go through byzantine processes simply to deliver packages. Coronation succeeds in these sequences by tapping into a muted sense of boredom—and the sense of uneasiness undergirding it—that has guided everyday life in China in 2020.
Ai makes all this banality absolutely fascinating, however. There’s an amazing shot near the film’s beginning in which the camera follows one medical worker through a windowless corridor. Wisely, there’s nary a cut—the shot goes on and on and on for several minutes as the worker winds past various windowless rooms. We glimpse others along the way—some are putting on PPE, others seem to be performing medical tests—but the worker curiously ignores them. The corridor is dark and seemingly infinite, but somehow, the subject knows where to go.
Beyond that corridor are many, many people in need of urgent medical help, but Ai focuses largely on the people who care for them, not the patients themselves. His film is attentive to the new daily rituals those workers must undergo to be safe—one long take features two nurses who apply a series of Q-tips to their ears, as part of a complex sanitizing procedure. You can’t watch Coronation without remembering how hard nurses like these two have worked since the pandemic began.
Within the art world, Ai is known mainly as a provocateur. For one work made in the 1990s, he procured a Han Dynasty urn and smashed it. And for a 2009 film, he chronicled the lives of school children killed in their classrooms during an earthquake that killed almost 90,000 in China’s Sichuan province. It’s works like these, plus his vocal forms of activism, that have garnered the attention of Chinese authorities, who have detained him multiple times and sought to censor his art.
At first, it might seem that Coronation shares little in common with Ai’s works that employ more well-known shock tactics, but in fact, this film is a daredevil move as well, made as it is in a country that tightly controls the dissemination of such images. That the film exists at all is a feat, given that U.S. audiences have rarely gotten to peer inside Wuhan ICUs for prolonged periods. (In a New York Times interview last week, Ai declined to explain how the crew created the footage. He also said that the film’s political content may have kept it from getting a major U.S. release and a showing at the world’s top festivals.)
Yet the chief reason for Coronation’s success is the attention it pays to how the crisis affected the ordinary Chinese citizen. Together with the footage of nurses on the job, there is an interview with a construction worker who was left stranded in Wuhan while working to erect a temporary hospital. He is shown living out of his car in a parking lot, several electric outlets near the vehicle being his main source of power. And there is a touching sequence where a man argues with his mother about whether the Communist Party is to be trusted. Are they telling the truth about the virus’s abatement, or is it all lies? They’re split on the question, the elderly woman left defending political officials. Still, even she has grown exhausted by the lockdown. “When is all this going to be over?” she asks at one point, exasperated.
Eventually, the lockdown does end, but the difficulties do not, as Ai’s film shows. The powerful finale documents the long and arduous process of obtaining the remains of those who have died. We watch as people line up in the rain to take home their loved ones in boxes. Even to join that line is not easy, however. One sequence shows a man on the phone with authorities who are refusing to let him retrieve his father’s ashes. Official documentation has suggested that the employers of the deceased should be in charge of the body, rendering family unable to claim it.
In this sequence, we glimpse how a virus has become politicized, ruining the lives of everyday people who are at its mercy. “The government, in order to maintain its stability, uses so many resources, so much manpower and money to monitor and control me,” the man trying to retrieve his father’s ashes says in an interview. “Since you have all these resources and power to use against these families, why don’t you help us with our problems?”