A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (NYFF Review)

Wuhan, China, is a beautiful city built on the banks of the Yangtze River, though we'll probably never be able to look at it quite the same way after 2020—now every street seems filled with people who carry their own private tragedies. Shengze Zhu's beautiful portrait does some of this looking for us, though, by comparing footage of the vibrant city that she shot between 2016 and 2019 with the surveillance footage of the empty streets during the world's first Covid-19 lockdown last year. The result is a powerful meditation on scales of loss, and one of the best films to be snuck into this year's NYFF Currents sidebar.

As the title suggests, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is about more than just how Covid-19 shaped Wuhan, but how the river and the city's inhabitants have too. Zhu frequently films construction sites, charting the way Wuhan is rapidly reforming and modernizing itself. Her other frequent muse is the river, around which the entire city revolves, and which floods to the point that the earlier landscapes are completely transformed.

Onto the geologic scale of the erasure and replacement done by rivers, Zhu overlays the text of letters that several Wuhan residents have composed to relatives who died of Covid-19. One writer addresses a lover; another, a father; another, a brother. The dead are not remembered only for their importance in the lives of the survivors, but for their roles in the greater system of the city: one victim was at home in the river, a frequent rescuer of weaker swimmers; another admired nothing more than the city's numerous bridges.

A River plays like a eulogy to individuals, to a particular pre-pandemic time, and to an always-changing city. Though any single person is diminished by the scale of Zhu's film—always filmed from great distance to capture the larger tapestry—there is also a private weight to every figure who wanders into her shot. Is this the letter writer? What is that person's story? As we know, one lone drop of water might not be enough to shape a landscape, but millions together change everything.

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces made its US premiere at the New York Film Festival.