In the Same Breath boasts plenty of charged imagery and emotion, but its pat dialectics and dangling theses undermine its intellectual power.
For a while, Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath makes for a fascinating companion piece to Ai Weiwei’s 2020 documentary CoroNation. Neither director has been shy with their criticisms of the Chinese government, and so it’s immediately fascinating to see how their respective approaches to a shared topic — the Chinese government’s response to the initial Covid crisis in Wuhan and subsequent manipulation of the official narrative for propagandist purposes — take different shapes. Ai’s work, culled from nearly 700 hours of mostly amateur, surreptitiously shot footage, opens as a dystopic mood piece, capturing the eerie silence of the pandemic’s early days, before shifting into a few elongated, intimate sketches of procedural minutiae and suffering. He relies heavily on mood and repetition — both in his selection of imagery and in his method of stitching together unrelated but startlingly similar footage — to build an unsettling and often surreal look at the insidious power structures behind China’s crisis response. Taking a different tack, In the Same Breath, for a while, holds the posture of investigative journalism, weaving conspiratorial yarn from an assemblage of personal anecdotes, official state reportage via sanctioned news outlets, and a lot of dot-connecting.
But then Wang shifts gears, moving her film westward and assessing the United States’ national Covid response. She carefully cycles through a few key bullet points — the punitive approach toward whistleblowing, the lingering trauma of frontline healthcare workers who witnessed death on such a mass scale, the validity of Covid truther concerns amidst such widespread, state-mandated misinformation campaigns — but the thread of her thesis begins to fray. This section evinces an intellectual looseness that becomes difficult to fully get behind; there’s no denying the power generated by allowing nurses to speak to their own horrific experiences, but Wang’s attempts to lend legitimacy to the objections of the haircut mob are undercut by setting such arguments to footage of liberty-or-death hordes — one Einstein helpfully informs the camera that his mask is located under his scrotum.
These discursive asides eventually come full circle when Wang shifts her focus back to China in order to reinforce the mirroring at play, but her argument that neither democratic nor authoritarian institutions have the moral high ground in the face of such human collateral isn’t all that cutting, particularly in a post-Trump world where the fetishization of national exceptionalism has become a global talking point. That’s not to deny the force of most of what’s presented on screen here: both visually — a bird’s eye view of a Chinese cemetery, shot as an aerial cam zooms out and the footprint of death expands, is a particular gut-shot — and empathetically — nothing in Ai’s documentary approaches the image of a father attempting to give his dying son water as a doctor tries to evict him from the hospital room — but Wang would have done well to rein in her instinct toward pat dialectics. It’s unlucky for Wang that her film followed CoroNation, and in some ways, their relationship speaks to our experience of the pandemic. Ai’s film chillingly captures the shifting, unsettling mystery of early Covid days, riffing on our fear of the unknown, its aesthetic a tapestry of impressionistic touches. In the Same Breath feels like the later-days take that it is, heavily rhetorical and somewhat sapped of energy, angling for conclusive assessment but fumbling in its attempt to weave its disparate threads.
You can catch Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath on HBO on August 18 (9:00 PM EST) or streaming on HBO Max.