Working with local journalists and videographers, she has compiled a striking collection of footage — including some surreptitiously shot inside hospitals — reflecting the chaotic response and uncertainty, the terrible toll on residents and the government’s efforts to spin and obscure what was happening in self-serving, propagandistic ways.
It’s a devastating portrait of the Chinese government — and the happy-talk news pushed out through its media — reinforcing that there has yet to be a full accounting of the true death toll Covid exacted during that first wave of cases. The government’s determination to control the narrative includes police visiting those who dared speak out about local conditions, and the grief experienced by families who lost loved ones.
Fears of a knock on the door are evident in conversations with hospital personnel, some of whom speak through the anonymity of heavy protective gear. Even in those instances it’s hard not to wonder how identifiable some might be, given references to what they witnessed and experienced.
Yet while that material makes up the majority of the documentary, Wang doesn’t spare officials in the US during the Trump administration. Indeed, the not-so-subtle message of “In the Same Breath” contrasts the authoritarian response in China with misinformation distributed in the US, waving red flags about where America could be heading. As Wang puts it in her narration, under both systems there’s danger when “ordinary people become casualties of their leaders’ pursuit of power.”
The fact that the film is premiering as the US experiences another alarming wave of Covid-related cases only adds to the project’s relevance, while revisiting China’s lack of transparency in addressing the issues. In perhaps the most jarring flourish, Wang engages in a haunting interlude that speculates about how the initial response could have unfolded differently.
Wang’s perspective doesn’t spare either nation, which gives a deeper meaning to the title. In some respects, “In the Same Breath” leaves behind as many questions as it answers, but the director’s lens and those of her collaborators remain as unflinching as they are sobering.
“In the Same Breath” premieres Aug. 18 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.