A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is a poetic film about Wuhan city as it wakes up to «normal life» post Covid-19. Poetic does not necessarily mean it is romantic, nostalgic, or beautiful. Poems can also be frightening, surrealistic, and alarming, as this film is. Perhaps the script was scrutinised by a censorship committee, but they must have interpreted it as a tribute to Wuhan’s amazing growth, engineering skills, and soaring economic prosperity. In reality, it is a witness of how obsolete the individual has become in the massive process of tearing down the old for building a monotonous new. Our public space is altering at a speed we can barely grasp. Our worlds have become unrecognisable from what our parents experienced, resulting in a widening generation gap. Director Shengze Zhu is a true artist because she is able to see the constellations that reveal these deeper truths of our society.
Zhu’s latest begins with the end of the city’s 76 days long lockdown period. The world watched their efficient methods of dealing with the outbreak with astonishment. We were amazed that hospitals specialised for Covid-19 patients could be built in just 10 days. However, Wuhan is not only the epicenter for the pandemic but also the hotbed for developing and manufacturing new technologies. It is one of the fastest expanding cities of China and can perhaps even be taken as a prototype of a futuristic society. Maybe the only thing that seemed a bit eerie was the high level of complacency and discipline from the city’s 11 million citizens.
Zhu’s films have been collecting awards at festivals ever since 2016 when she premiered Another Year, a film that gave a powerful introspection on the effects of China’s massive urbanisation. In Present. Perfect (2019), she created a cinematic collage completely made up of live-stream footage, this time focusing on collective loneliness. A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces combines both these themes in one film. On the one hand, it is a patchwork of around 20 scenes portraying a city that monstrously overshadows its citizens. On the other, it is an intimate account of individuals who have alienated themselves from their closest relatives. It is a picture of modern women and men in a modern world.
it is a witness of how obsolete the individual has become in the massive process of tearing down the old for building a monotonous new.
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces reminds me of Roy Andersson’s signature film The Songs from the Second Floor, jury prize winner at Cannes 2000. What Andersson meticulously created in his film studio, Zhu captures observing real life. Their films consist of long-lasting tableaus shot in single takes, which are put together to create an impression of a dystopic modern life. They share similar aesthetics – the horizons in their long static shots blend in diffused grays where humans are depicted as a monotonous herd. When we do come close to the individuals, they resemble displaced characters from a Beckett play, caught up in despairing loneliness and perpetual misunderstanding, unable to communicate with their closest. Both artists reflect the philosophical thought of existentialism where «the individual’s starting point is ‘the existential angst,’ filled with a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, and anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world.»
They both also use immense traffic jams as a constant background element, although in A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, it creates the audible background along with the sounds of iron being welded and construction blocks bumping into each other as the building frenzy of Wuhan never ceases. This points to another interesting feature of Zhu’s films. The audible recordings are authentic from the places being shot, but we never see their source. This creates tension within us as we «feel» two realities at once, the audio and the visual. A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is a pure observational film, yet the dynamic and tension build through contrasts on multiple levels. The contrast between wide shot tableaus and closer intimate confessions, between complete silence and complete darkness with only noise, between the massive constructions and the lonely individuals that look like small ants in the abstract pictures. How interesting it is to get this perspective on our reality.
Are we moving forward?
We do not see the individual’s close-up, but we read their thoughts – line by line – as they are written across the screen. These are their thoughts about close relatives that recently passed away due to the pandemic. Regrets run like a red line throughout the film: «I realize that I never tried to understand you», «we tried to avoid you for years», and «I never answered you missed phone calls »
Every scene of the film is packed with symbolism. Men are swimming against the current and they swim rigorously for full four minutes not moving an inch. Is this not what it’s all about? Humans throw themselves into a technological race in the hope to gain higher living standards. But are we really getting ahead? Are we moving forward? Nothing in Zhu’s film seems to indicate that we are.