How Yung Chang turned 300 hours of footage from Wuhan's early pandemic into a gripping documentary
'We were driven by the passion to give a faceless city, known only as the epicentre of the virus, a heartbeat'
Cutaways is a personal essay series by Canadian filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This edition by Yung Chang focuses on his documentary Wuhan Wuhan, which follows essential workers in the city of Wuhan during the early days of COVID-19.
Contains strong language.
I was pushing my three-year-old daughter in her stroller on a leisurely walk through our neighbourhood in Toronto's west end. It was March 31st, 2020, just after the first lockdown had started. A white man in his 30s, walking ahead of us on the other side of the street, turned to look at us. He continued, then turned around again, staring harder. I stared back.
"You got a staring problem?" he asked.
"Who's staring at who?" I replied.
The man glared at me. I'm familiar with this expression — something that I hadn't encountered since my childhood growing up in small-town Ontario.
"Don't engage; keep moving," I thought, my daughter unaware as we continued down the street.
"Yeah, keep fuckin' walking!" he screamed after us. "You and your ugly baby!"
A ridiculous retort, I almost laughed out loud.
When I posted about the incident on Instagram, there was an outpouring of reaction. Someone even tried to wire me a money transfer. I declined the offer but was touched nonetheless. Between the omnipresent racism ("China Virus," "Kung Flu") and the predicament of an unknown future, my emotions were ping-ponging between anger and hopelessness.
A week later, I was contacted by Starlight Media, a studio based in Los Angeles, inquiring if I would remotely direct 300 hours of footage filmed in Wuhan during the peak of the pandemic in February and March 2020.
I was hesitant. I'd never worked with footage that I didn't film myself on location. I asked to watch a few hours of footage. They sent me a random selection of 10 hours. I was floored by what I saw.
We were just entering our first wave of the virus and the footage I watched was revealing the early experiences of everyday people, frontline workers and healthcare workers in a way that I had not seen before. This wasn't ripped-from-the-headlines, salacious footage — it was intimate, emotional, three-dimensional storytelling that reminded me of my experiences making Up the Yangtze or China Heavyweight.
The film crew had embedded themselves with nine different characters, from doctors to nurses to a young expectant couple to medical waste disposal workers to a psychologist. What I watched was material that felt familiar and relatable. It felt real and human, spanning the range of emotions that I was experiencing. I knew I had to make this film.
With my lead editors Evita Yuepu Zhou and Zimo Huang, my producers Diane Quon (Minding the Gap), Donna Gigliotti (Hidden Figures) and Peter Luo (Crazy Rich Asians), and our executive producer, the martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, I embarked on a filmmaking journey unlike any other. I felt extremely grateful to be entrusted by the film crew to envision the footage into a feature documentary, particularly as it kept me working at a time when so many of my peers were waylaid because of the pandemic. I didn't want to politicize the virus but rather deep-dive into the lives of others to share their experiences, and hopefully give audiences moments to reflect and consider our collective humanity. We were driven by the passion to give a faceless city, known only as the epicentre of the virus, a heartbeat and a soul.
I edited with my team remotely from Toronto as they carved the story from their respective homes in Los Angeles and Chicago, where the legendary Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams) was guiding us with post-production supervision. The process was remarkably smooth as far as editing goes. Usually it's a long, arduous path to identify the story out of an exorbitant amount of footage, but I think because of my distance from the material, I was able to sift through the footage and find the core much more quickly than I have with my past films. I didn't need to be precious about scenes I may have held too close to my heart if I had been directing the film in Wuhan.
We whittled the nine characters to five: the couple expecting a baby, a mother and son quarantined in a byzantine temporary hospital, a psychologist facing her own family crisis while helping patients, a soft-hearted emergency doctor and an ICU nurse who's isolated from her young children while working at a hospital in Wuhan. Each character experiences the universal spectrum of emotions that all of us can directly or indirectly relate to during this pandemic.
Early on in the editing process, I found a quote that was being shared on social media in China. It was written by a 7th-century Japanese official in a letter to a Chinese official.
We are from different lands and are separated by mountains and waters.
Yet above us, we share the same sky and the same feelings.
— Nagaya no Kimi
This became the guiding theme for this documentary. When I think back to that racist incident from March 31st, 2020, now knowing how prevalent Asian hate is in North America (particularly with the recent murder of Asian women in Atlanta), I hope that my film, Wuhan Wuhan, can offer a sense of dignity for the Wuhanese people. From the beginning of the pandemic, anti-Asian racism was quelled by double-speak and mis-truths from leaders around the world who obfuscated the realities of this crisis. In the end it is the everyday person, the essential frontline workers, the volunteers, the intergenerational families — those characters depicted in my film — who must navigate the ups-and-downs of this unprecedented and historic event that will shape our lives forever.
In a way, as systems and governments fail us, the people have come together. We will survive; we are the keepers of our hope.
Wuhan Wuhan is currently playing at the virtual 2021 edition of Vancouver's DOXA documentary festival. Watch the film from anywhere in Canada through May 16th here.