As an installation artist, Ai Weiwei is a larger-than-life character so adept at mocking China’s authoritarian extremes that it led to his exile; behind the camera, that personality recedes to the background. From “Stay Home,” his portrait of HIV struggles in China, to the sprawling look at the refugee crisis in “Human Flow,” Ai treats cinema as a pure humanitarian vessel. That makes him well-equipped for “Coronation,” which has bragging rights as the first documentary feature released about the coronavirus lockdown in China. It casts a wide net: The movie puts a human face on a global health crisis by finding many of them all across this troubled country.
It also brings new urgency to the concept of the found-footage movie. Produced in secret, shot by amateur citizens, and released without warning last week, “Coronation” confronts the paradoxes of China’s coronavirus response in fragments of angry residents, eerie medical processes, and a whole lot of red tape. A scattershot portrait of the last several months, the nearly two-hour movie pits the sophistication of the nation’s response against the forces of propaganda and bureaucracy that resulted in countless deaths and societal dysfunction.
Ai’s collage-like approach meanders along, resulting in a dense and sometimes unfocused collection of moments stretching all the way back to the start of the year. Stick with it, though, and the movie delivers a haunting and immersive starting point for parsing the flaws of a vast national response to the sudden takeover of COVID-19 — and certainly won’t be the last of its kind.
For obvious reasons, “Coronation” doesn’t identify the many figures it captures throughout; given the country’s record with censorship, the very existence of this footage is a small miracle. Ai, who lives in Germany, seems to have smuggled footage out of the country from an unnamed team of collaborators who managed to capture opposing factors in China’s battle with the virus: Citizens whose lives are destroyed by the lockdown, ailing patients shunted into understaffed hospitals, and relatives struggling to work through the propaganda machine just to pick up their dead. Often set to an ominous electronic score (credited to Punkgod and Ling Ling), the movie oscillates between post-apocalyptic neo-noir and slow-burn medical thriller as it toggles from individual survival stories to mechanical processes of the hospital routine.
The movie opens in the dead of night, as a couple returns to Wuhan and faces a range of skeptical authorities (they can’t even get gas without someone calling the cops to check their papers). Their frantic drama fades into others: whispered phone calls between relatives in disparate parts of the country, an unemployed man living out of his car, anonymous hospital workers dashing through endless hallways. This is China in 2020: Individual hardships drifting through the void of a faceless regime.
At first, it’s hard to discern much cohesion to Ai’s approach. With time, however, the movie coalesces into an absorbing deep-dive, careening from an inside view of hospital struggles to workers taking a communist pledge to an elderly woman whose patriotism means she’s basically become a mouthpiece for the government’s ideological agenda. “Together we can tackle any problem,” she croaks, as a nearby TV transmits news of America’s naive virus response. “It’s not like this in other countries.”
OK, America screwed things up. But did China really land a perfect scorecard? Another filmmaker might push back on such an overconfident declaration with charts and graphs or condemnatory media coverage. Ai sets that aside for more intimate and emotional snapshots, giving us the bitter truth through the voices of the people who feel it the most: Virus-afflicted hospital patients complaining that their cases have been misrecorded, angry relatives juggling the bureaucratic details of recovering their dead loves ones over the phone, and a furious masked nurse who delivers the most wrenching declaration about the impact of the virus on younger generations: “Its shadow will darken our hearts forever.”
Watching “Coronation” is akin to sitting inside that shadow and watching its inhabitants scramble for some semblance of light. “If you face the government yourself you feel tiny and powerless,” one man says. Instead, they remain at its mercy.
In the wrenching finale, citizens huddle together in the rain, waiting for their numbers to be called so they can pick up their relatives’ remains. “Coronation” finds its strongest image of the crisis with an anonymous hand stuffing ashes into a jar that refuses to contain them. It’s a haunting embodiment of a tragedy that the world’s most powerful countries would love to stick in a box and call it a day. As long as the cameras keep watching, no box will do that job for good.
“Coronation” is now available for rental and purchase via Alamo On Demand.