At just under 50 minutes, Yu Kung and Crystal Liu’s short-form documentary special, “COVID: Our Lockdown in Shanghai,” covers a dizzying array of topics so timely that the word “timely” doesn’t quite cut it. Shot during the early days of Shanghai’s pandemic lockdown, also known as mere months ago (the short-form documentary, airing on Smithsonian Channel, began filming in January), Kung and Liu’s doc follows the swift change in everyday life within the confines of their own apartment building in the bustling city. It’s an indisputably great idea for a quarantine-era project, one that seems destined to be imitated in a variety of ways, but Kung and Liu don’t just have the benefit of being quick on the draw, but of doing it (mostly) the right way, too.
Picking up during the early days of the pandemic — so early, in fact, that even the residents of Shanghai, just a four hour train ride from the outbreak’s heart in Wuhan, weren’t yet terrified — Kung and Liu follow a world moments away from tremendous change. Watching it even now, with a touch (just a touch) of remove, it’s bizarre to hear early news reports chatting about a new virus playing over scenes of city-dwellers happily moving around Shanghai without a care in the world. Slowly, gracefully, those reports give way to more urgent missives and a shots of the city growing ever more empty and eerie. The doc’s muted color scheme, initially soothing, steadily turns into something else: emblematic of all the life and energy that is missing from the world.
Stuck inside their own 19th floor apartment, Kung and Liu decide to start following the lives of their neighbors and friends to get a sense of what’s happening in microcosm. (Another win for the couple: they’re not at all navel-gaze-y about their project, and their subjects get just as much, if not more, screen time than them.) Everyone from the dedicated workers who clean the building (now, of course, working overtime) to the three generations of one family who live and work together in their busy wedding dress shop to a pair of ex-pats struggling to make their far-flung families understand what’s to come, “Our Lockdown in Shanghai” captures many compelling stories.
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Kung and Liu also find the time to focus on the growing rise of monitoring technology throughout China, the kind that will likely make some viewers envious (the contact tracing, the system for determining who is more likely to be a threat to others, the government-mandated quarantine procedures, it’s a feat of organization, that’s for sure) and others angry about the intrusion (some of Kung and Liu’s own subjects believably cycle through their own disdain, too).
Mostly, though, “Our Lockdown in Shanghai” is focused on the emotional stories of its subjects (even one neighbor, who returned from a trip during lockdown and had to self-quarantine, is effervescent enough that her storyline is as much about a scary situation as it is her good humor), and Kung and Liu keep the documentary very human without turning to silly sentimentality. For every scene of a family happily reunited, there’s another sequence of one squabbling over something as mundane as household chores, and the documentary treats each with the same gravity and respect.
That sort of perspective is, however, lacking in the documentary’s final moments, which carve a hopeful path forward (with a necessary, and well-earned message of the power of caring about others) that will likely ring false for the rest of the world, still plunged into the pandemic. And yet “Our Lockdown in Shanghai,” despite the uncanny relatability of its subjects and their experiences, only promises to be just that: about their lockdown in Shanghai. It’s a now-universal story, but one that will take many different shapes over the coming months. Here’s hoping they are all as hopeful as the deeply human story portrayed here.
“COVID: Our Lockdown in Shanghai” premieres Monday, May 25 at 9 p.m. ET on Smithsonian Channel.