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Last month, Ai Weiwei beat every other filmmaker to the punch with Coronation, becoming the first to release a feature-length documentary about the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, Ai’s artistic collaborators filmed the government response to the crisis and how ordinary citizens were impacted. Directing them remotely from Europe, he had them gather their footage, and also acquired permissions to use other footage, eventually assembling it into this film.
While China was able to far surpass international expectations in its handling of the virus — keeping infection and death rates relatively low with a stringent quarantine and measures like building temporary hospitals — Ai’s critique of his home country remains relentless, in particular identifying how bureaucracy can leave people out in the cold.
And that’s not even a figurative description. One of the main characters is a construction worker brought to Wuhan to build one such hospital, who is subsequently unable to return home due to the quarantine and is left living out of his car. (According to France 24, he has since died by suicide.) Another subplot follows a man’s Kafkaesque attempts to obtain his father’s cremains. The film revels in this surreal, heightened atmosphere, featuring innumerable images of empty city streets, often shot by drones, as well as scenes of people kitted up in PPE, looking straight out of a sci-fi thriller. (There are also actual robots at work, sanitizing things.)
However, the overriding tone is not fixated on the strangeness of the situation, but rather how the strangeness is quickly folded into a sense of normalcy. We see this in a long take of a worker striding businesslike through a labyrinthine series of hospital hallways, passing patients and various messages of encouragement scrawled on the walls in marker. The tenor of the everyday conversations that the cameras capture is not terror but boredom. One cameraman debates his mother about how much they can trust the government. No matter what a country’s quarantining procedures (or lack thereof elsewhere), people eventually adapt their rhythms to whatever a situation demands.
However, that nuance seems lost in many responses to Coronation, which see it solely as a condemnation of China and not a more nuanced look into an aspect of its society. This is particularly acute now, given that China’s response to COVID-19 has outperformed that of many Western countries, especially the US. Frankly, there’s no criticism of China’s handling of this pandemic that can’t be turned back on the US a hundredfold (particularly as it pertains to government lies), but that hasn’t stopped people eager to talk up the supposedly dystopian menace of a scary foreign boogeyman. Meanwhile, no one blinks an eye at South Korea’s routine invasions of personal privacy for its contact tracing. (And they shouldn’t, since it was part of that country’s highly effective response, but the hypocrisy of outside observers talking about “authoritarianism” is the point here.)
Ai has been a cause célèbre for many Westerners because of the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress his work, but the ways in which some in the art world support him sometimes seem to stem less from genuine concern for “human rights” and often feel more rooted in wielding a convenient cudgel toward an international rival while ignoring myriad abuses happening at home. This contradiction is only heightened by the fact that this film is being championed as an exposé of China’s COVID response when the US death count is approaching 200,000, with no return to normalcy in sight.
Keep yourself informed about other countries, of course, but never lose sight of who and what really threaten your well-being. “CoroNation” is a much more fitting label for the US than China.