There are the images of before, the images of after and four letters. Shengze Zhu already started working on the film in 2016 and eventually ended up with a city symphony about her birthplace Wuhan.
A city in lockdown. Surveillance camera images show an empty street. A biker. A street sweeper. That fixed frame is gradually being replaced by other fixed frames, but now they are handmade. Wuhan and especially the area around the banks of the Yangtze River comes to life. Surveillance film becomes Direct Cinema becomes Slow Cinema. It is a rich, precise, but also symbolic film. The time that elapses in the images (sometimes measured by a time code, sometimes just by the changing of the light) is different from the natural flow of river time. Zhu also reflects on other forms of time; psychological or social. An empty street takes longer than a full square.
The four letters are addressed to a partner, a grandmother, a father and a daughter, all of them no longer here. The words become visible, the images they evoke settle over the ones onscreen. So much water under the bridge, but the river keeps flowing. It doesn’t forget.
The film might recall Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1977), but also the work of James Benning or Peter Hutton (Time and Tide, 2000). The static long takes and reverse chronology again suggest a certain structuralist approach – in Another Year(2016), Zhu observed 13 meals; in Present.Perfect. (2019), we only see live streams from the perspective of a computer desktop. The latter film won the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) and was shown at Film Fest Gent 2019. A River Runsreceived the Caligari Prize in the Forum section of the Berlinale this year.
“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” [Marco] Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
– from Invisible Cities (1972) by Italo Calvino, the book Zhu Shengze was reading while editing the film
*** Together with the evening of Floris Vanhoof, this screening links up with a two-part program around ‘COVID films’ that Art Cinema OFFoff presents on November 8 and 15 in Sphinx Cinema and Kunsthal Gent. By now, the ‘COVID film’ has become a strange, multifaceted genre or category of films – think of Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, 2021), The Tsugua Diaries (Miguel Gomes, 2021), Four Roads ( Alice Rohrwacher, 2021), In My Room (Mati Diop, 2020) or Citadel (John Smith, 2021), just to name a few. This two-part program tries to bring an alternative or sidelong view. In A River Runs the virus is never even mentioned by name; Floris Vanhoof created his own miniature sitcom during the quarantine. ***