Yung Chang: Wuhan Wuhan

DGC Ontario Director Yung Chang’s latest documentary WUHAN WUHAN will premiere at the 2021 Hot Docs Film Festival this week. The film is an observational documentary unfolding during February and March 2020 at the height of the pandemic in Wuhan city, where the coronavirus began. We spoke with Yung about the idea behind the film, taking a humanistic approach to the story and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.

How does it feel to have your film’s world premiere at Hot Docs?

It’s a great honour to have my world premiere at Hot Docs. The festival started my career back in 2003 with an NFB film I made called Earth to Mouth and has screened practically all my films. The Hot Docs Forum and Industry Conference was also an essential launching pad for my filmmaking career. I pitched Up the YangtzeChina Heavyweight and The Fruit Hunters (2010 Forum Pitch winner) there.

Can you tell us more about WUHAN WUHAN and how the idea came to life? 

Starlight Media, the American studio behind the film, contacted me to see if I wanted to take on 300 hours of footage filmed by a crew of 30 locked-down in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus, during the peak of the pandemic in February 2020. I initially watched 10 hours of raw footage. I was blown away by the filmmakers’ access and intimacy with their subjects, a cross-section of frontline healthcare workers and essential workers in the city. I took this as a great responsibility to be entrusted with such emotional footage.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making this film?

The original material covered nine different characters. We wouldn’t sustain a feature-length doc with nine characters, so the biggest challenge was whittling down the material and making drastic decisions to focus the film on what eventually became five characters. That was the structural challenge. But the technical challenge, a first for me, was working remotely in Toronto with my Editors in Los Angeles. I felt more like an Editor than a Director, as I had inherited the footage. I’m grateful, of course, for having this film to make during the pandemic. 

The film takes a very humanistic look at the people of Wuhan. Can you tell us about the choice to take this approach to the story?

A week before I got the call to make this film, my daughter and I experienced an anti-Asian racist incident in our Toronto west-end neighbourhood. I channelled the anger and confusion around this incident into the film by trying to humanize the people of Wuhan city. At the same time, the former President of the United States was throwing around “Kung Flu” and “China Virus,” and I think my team (all of Chinese descent in Los Angeles) felt very driven to cut through the bullshit and tell this story as emotionally humanistically as possible. It’s inherently within me to approach topics with empathy — like with my first feature doc Up the Yangtze and through to last year’s This is Not a Movie. The latter is about journalist Robert Fisk, and I take to heart his approach to journalism: “To report on the side of those who suffer.” He often said, “You can’t learn about a country or place unless you actually go there, on the ground, and witness it with your own eyes.” I suppose this is sort of the approach to WUHAN WUHAN. 

What are you hoping audiences will take away from your film?

I’m hoping WUHAN WUHAN can be a cathartic experience for everyone, the world over, who’ve all been through the ups and downs of this unprecedented event. We are all affected. This is a film that hopefully gives us space to “shake it off.” I’m hoping that by witnessing the lives of others, we can reflect upon our own shared experiences and give thought to our essential and healthcare workers who forged ahead (and are currently doing so) as politics and governments fail us.

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