In the Same Breath (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Another important documentary of the COVID-19 pandemic era

HBO documentary film “In the Same Breath” is another important record of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic era. Mostly sticking to personal stories to show and tell, the documentary calmly and harrowingly observes how things went wrong in China and then US during last year, and you may come to fear for what will possibly happen next if we do not learn anything from the devastating outcomes of the pandemic at present.

At the beginning, director/co-producer/co-editor Nanfu Wang, who previously drew my attention for her acclaimed documentary “One Child Nation” (2019), shows us how everything looked fine and normal in Wuhan, China on the first day of 2020. As many people in the city were celebrating the New Year’s Day outside, the state-controlled media reported on the arrest of 8 people for spreading unsubstantiated rumors about a new strain of coronavirus on the same day, but that news looked insignificant to the citizens of Wuhan as well as Wang, who happened to visit her hometown, which is incidentally not so far from Wuhan, along with her American husband and their two-year-old daughter around that time. During next two weeks, the Chinese government and its media outlets kept assuring to the public that there was nothing to fear as everything was under control, and Wang and her husband were not particularly concerned when they left for US while letting their daughter stay with her grandmother a bit longer.

However, as we all know, things got pretty worse around the end of January 2021. As Wuhan was subsequently quarantined from the world outside by the Chinese government, many other cities in China were also alerted to take actions against the growing number of COVID-19 infection cases, and, of course, many other countries began to take notice of this medical emergency at last. Quite worried about her daughter, Wang managed to have her daughter brought back to US, but then she was quite concerned about her mother and other family members in her hometown.

While trying to discern what was exactly going on in Wuhan, Wang came across numerous online writings and video clips posted from the city, and that was the beginning of her documentary project. She contacted several cameramen willing to record as much as they were permitted, and what they recorded on their cameras is not so far from “76 Days” (2020), an Emmy-winning documentary which presents raw glimpses into the lockdown period of Wuhan. While we often see empty streets, we also watch many hospital workers trying their best despite their daunting circumstance, and we later meet several local people willing to talk a bit about their personal loss and grief caused by COVID-19.

Many of the Chinese interviewees in the documentary prefer to remain anonymous or speak nothing at all against their country and government, and the documentary sharply points out how the Chinese government tried to protect itself by any means necessary. At first, it simply tried to cover up the epidemic as expecting the epidemic to be over within a short time. Once the situations turned out to be much more serious, it quickly changed the position while also spreading “positive” propaganda about its mighty efforts against the epidemic, and Wang cannot help but show her sardonic amusement on that.

Around the time when Wuhan was freed from lockdown, it was reported that around 3,300 people died of COVID-19 during the lockdown period, but, not so surprisingly, that is another lie from the Chinese government, which was already ready to move onto the future while further solidifying its power from Chinese people. According to one anonymous interviewee working in one of several public cemeteries in Wuhan, more than 20,000 people actually died during the lockdown period, and those countless tombstones shown at one point speak volumes to us about how much the city and its people were devastated during that time.

Despite watching how things got worse and worse in China during the first two months of 2020, Wang was not concerned that much when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in US, but then she and many others in US saw how the situation got quickly worse during next several months thanks to the mishandling of the situation by the US government, which was unfortunately led by that orange-faced bastard at that point. Thanks to heaps of misinformation spread by that irresponsible prick and his deplorable cronies and followers, the American society was soon turned upside down, and Wang helplessly observed how the situation could also go quite wrong in the opposite way in contrast to China.

In addition, Wang interviewed several American medical workers who were quite serious about the epidemic from the beginning, and their personal experiences are not so different from their Chinese counterparts. They all saw and experienced lots of deaths despite their best efforts, and the resulting emotional tolls on them feel palpable to us when they cannot say more in front of the camera. Watching their emotional moments, I could not help but muse on the enormous efforts of those local medical workers in South Korea at present, and I certainly support any good policy to help and relieve these people more.

On the whole, “In the Same Breath” is worthwhile to watch for its achingly human moments as well as its sobering observation on how the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrously mishandled by both the Chinese and US governments, and, probably because I was vaccinated just before watching the documentary, I came to reflect more on what Wang points out around the end of the documentary. Yes, things will never be the same even after we do not have to wear mask anymore, but will people really learn from this ongoing pandemic? I am not so sure, and that surely makes me as concerned as Wang.

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