Nanfu Wang’s films have all carried a level of empathy and investigative journalism that brings with them an emotional wallop. Her last film was an exploration into China’s one-child policy as One Child Nation brought her to re-examine her own upbringing and how it affected those around her while simultaneously looking at the policy’s remains. With In The Same Breath, Wang continues her gaze at China’s government and the faith placed in them amidst the COVID-19 epidemic, as she turns the lens onto both China and the United States to find the similar faults in two opposing forms of government and ideology. While uneven in its execution and feels like it struggles to find a satisfying conclusion in a pandemic that is still ongoing, In The Same Breath is nevertheless a searing exposé on the ways in which our leaders put lives at risk in a struggle to keep power.
Initially focused on the outbreak of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan in China, Wang documents the ways in which the Chinese government handles (and mishandles) the response to the virus. Beginning with her separation from her child as she leaves for the United States just before Wuhan goes into lockdown, Wang points the lens at herself to immediately capture the strongest component of In The Same Breath: the emotional, mental, and physical toll that the government response in China inflicted upon its citizens. From interviews with frontline workers to those who lost family members to the virus, the impact becomes undeniably evident.
While families are separated as their sick are placed into hospitals, or those that are sick are turned away from every hospital for a variety of confusing reasons, the government’s response hides the toll of the virus. As Wang pores through hours of state-sanctioned propaganda showing frontline workers as happy and patients doing great, the obfuscated reality is just behind closed doors. Thankfully, In The Same Breath captures both the public-facing reality and the darker, more painful truth of the situation. “When the government is telling us where to look, they’re also telling us where not to look” Wang states as the camera moves from window to window outside a massive apartment complex and people tell the tragic truth of loved ones passing.
That dichotomy between the government response in China and the stark reality shared on social media bleeds into the United States and the outcries of “fake news” and anti-maskers protesting their right to freedom. These parallels are strongly drawn but it also ends up being the weaker part of In The Same Breath. Quite simply, there just isn’t enough fleshed-out despite many valid comparisons brought up. The ways in which both China and the United States controlled the message and refuted science until it was too late is chilling, but Wang only scratches the surface. Similarly, the conversations surrounding freedom in the US versus the lack thereof in China pretty much stop and start there, despite both countries ending up mishandling their COVID-19 response. The lack of nuance in the conversations isn’t necessarily a new issue with Wang’s work, but it’s a disappointment when everything prior to the film’s examination of America is handled so effectively.
In The Same Breath doesn’t dwell too long in the areas where it falters. Instead, there’s a constant gaze placed on positions of power and why they behave the way they do in the midst of a crisis. Take the example of why an emphasis is placed on positivity in propaganda and the refusal to admit when wrong. Here is where Wang illustrates the illusion of power and the importance of maintaining an appearance of strength so foreign countries don’t smell weakness. While not particularly shocking personally, the fact that government leaders will do anything to maintain that illusion even at the cost of their citizens’ lives speaks volumes.
Wang has made a career at this point taking a look at China and the way it treats those living within its borders, and she has developed a style to her films that make every subject endlessly interesting. Here is no different as In The Same Breath feels akin to her previous work in One Child Nation and her investigative techniques have developed substantially since Hooligan Sparrow. However, she still falls into similar pitfalls as her previous works, often touching on subjects rife with potential but glancing over them in lieu of solidifying an already-made point. It’s those similarities that she tries to draw between countries that ultimately feel softened by a lack of nuance.
The ending of In The Same Breath is what drove home the fact that maybe the substance of those similarities aren’t readily apparent yet. It posits questions of what if things had gone differently in the beginning but it doesn’t offer anything insightful and the ending just feels like it’s still looking for the ending – which begs the question of whether the film could have benefitted from more distance from the pandemic. Ultimately, In The Same Breath is a compelling look at the ways in which governments hide the truth from their own people, all done through the lens of an ongoing tragedy. It’s not as effective by the time it finishes but most of the time it’s an enrapturing exposé that ends up still being a substantial addition to Nanfu Wang’s filmography.
- Christopher Cross