‘Coronation’ Review: Ai Weiwei Confronts China’s Coronavirus Response

The filmmaker and installation artist's surprise documentary captures China's viral response from angry residents, eerie medical processes and a lot of red tape.

As an installation artist, Ai Weiwei is a larger-than-life figure who so mocks China's authoritarian extremes that it led to his exile. behind the camera this personality takes a back seat. From “Stay Home”, his portrait of the HIV struggle in China, to the comprehensive look at the refugee crisis in “Human Flow”, Ai regards the cinema as a purely humanitarian vessel. He is well prepared for "Coronation", which is the first documentary film about the lockdown of coronaviruses in China to have boastful rights. It casts a wide web: the film gives a human face to a global health crisis by finding many of them all in this troubled country.

It also brings a new urgency to the concept of found footage film. "Coronation" was produced in secret, shot dead by amateur citizens, and released without warning last week. It confronts the paradoxes of China's coronavirus response in fragments of angry residents, sinister medical processes, and a ton of red tape. A scattershot portrait of the past few months, the nearly two-hour film shows the sophistication of the nation's reaction against the forces of propaganda and bureaucracy that have led to countless deaths and social dysfunction.



Ai's collage-like approach meanders, leading to a dense and sometimes unfocused collection of moments that go back to the beginning of the year. Stick with it, and the film provides a haunting and haunting starting point from which to analyze the shortcomings of a major national response to the sudden takeover of COVID-19 – and it certainly won't be the last of its kind.

For obvious reasons, Coronation does not identify the many characters that it consistently captures. Given the country's censorship, the existence of this footage is a minor miracle. Ai, who lives in Germany, appears to have smuggled recordings out of the country of an unnamed team of staff who managed to capture opposing factors in China's fight against the virus: citizens whose lives will be destroyed by the lockdown, sick patients being taken to understaffed hospitals and relatives struggling to work through the propaganda machine just to pick up their dead. Often put on a menacing electronic score (credited to Punkgod and Ling Ling), the film oscillates between post-apocalyptic neo-noir and slow-burning medical thriller as it shifts from individual survival stories to mechanical processes of hospital routine.

The film opens in the middle of the night when a couple return to Wuhan and are faced with a number of skeptical authorities (they can't even get gasoline without someone calling the police to check their papers). Their hectic drama fades into others: whispered phone calls between relatives in different parts of the country, an unemployed man who lives out of his car, anonymous hospital workers rushing through endless corridors. This is China in 2020: Individual hardships are drifting through the void of a faceless regime.


At first, it's hard to see any great cohesion with Ai's approach. Over time, however, the film merges into a thrilling, deep dive that evolves from an inside view of hospital struggles to workers making a communist pledge to an elderly woman whose patriotism means that she is basically a mouthpiece for the government's ideological agenda is. "Together we can tackle any problem," she croaks as a nearby television broadcast news of America's naive viral response. "This is not the case in other countries."

OK, America screwed everything up. But did China really get a perfect scorecard? Another filmmaker could push back such a cocky statement with charts and graphs or judgmental media coverage. Ai puts this aside for more intimate and emotional snaps, and gives us the bitter truth through the voices of the people who feel it the most: virus-stricken hospital patients complaining that their cases have been misrecorded, angry relatives sharing with the Bureaucratic details of recovering their cases juggle dead loved ones on the phone and an angry masked nurse who makes the worst statement about the virus' impact on younger generations: "Its shadow will forever darken our hearts."

Watching “Coronation” is like sitting in that shadow and watching its residents search for a semblance of light. "When you face government yourself, you feel tiny and powerless," says one man. Instead, they remain at his mercy.

In the finale, citizens huddle together in the rain, waiting for their numbers to be called so they can pick up the remains of their relatives. "Coronation" finds its strongest picture of the crisis with an anonymous hand stuffing ashes into a jar that refuses to contain it. It is a haunting embodiment of a tragedy that the most powerful countries in the world would like to put in a box and call a day. As long as the cameras keep looking, no box will do this job for good.

Grade: B +

"Coronation" is now available to rent and purchase through Alamo On Demand.

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