‘Emotional power’: China’s Covid wounds reopened in tense, divisive ‘An Unfinished Film’

Much of the film focuses on the mobile phone screen of a film crew member character. On the phone, the audience sees actual news reports and short videos that were posted during the Covid-19 pandemic in China between 2020 and 2022 – most of which were later removed by censors.
Nationalist online commenters have argued that Lou’s film was intended as a critique of China’s zero-Covid policy – which included mandatory testing, quarantine and strict border controls – and was “in line with Western criticism” of China’s human rights record and political system.

It was not clear if any of the commenters had seen the film.

In a series of Weibo posts last week “Hongkang010”, a nationalist film blogger with nearly 200,000 followers, called Lou a “traitor to China” who “gives the Western media the material to attack our system”.


China’s Li Qiang shakes off Shanghai Covid chaos to become new premier

China’s Li Qiang shakes off Shanghai Covid chaos to become new premier

The blogger threatened to report Lou to the China Film Administration, the country’s top film management and censorship body, and called for a ban on the release of another Lou film in production. The posts were shared thousands of times and attracted many comments.

But others have praised Lou’s work as a vivid depiction of some of the tragedies caused by the harsh zero-Covid rules.

One critic who saw the film at Cannes said on Weibo that Lou’s film had “emotional power” because “my memory and the film’s presentation are integrated”.

“Lou’s choice to draw on public memory is undoubtedly a daring one, as people’s memories are different, especially when it comes to evaluating those three years,” the critic said.

At the peak of the zero-Covid policy, social media platforms Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), WeChat and Weibo were filled with accounts of tragic events said to be caused by the strict limits imposed on people’s daily lives, especially during the two-month lockdown in Shanghai in 2022.

The videos were quickly removed by censors after they had been posted, but not before people had preserved them with screenshots and recordings.

“Richard”, a film critic from China who saw the premiere at Cannes, said he heard many sobs, at mention of Li Wenliang, a doctor who had issued early warnings about the pandemic but was later rebuked by Wuhan police for “spreading rumours”. Li died of Covid-19 in February 2020, prompting widespread tributes.

Richard asked that his real name not be used due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Other incidents said to be featured in the film include the September 2022 bus crash in which 27 people were killed on their way to a mandatory quarantine facility in the southwestern province of Guizhou.

In November of that year, a fire at a residential building killed 10 people in Urumqi, in the northwestern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where some of the country’s strictest lockdown measures had been in effect.

Chinese director Lou Ye has won acclaim for his previous works that offer clever windows on Chinse society. Photo: AFP

The fire later triggered anti-Covid lockdown protests in Shanghai, which soon spread to other major Chinese cities.

Richard said Lou’s film showed the fire and subsequent mourning activities for the victims in several cities, but then “it stops there”.

He also said the film did not show the waves of public protests that had erupted amid the ensuing economic hardship and restrictions on personal freedoms, during which slogans had appeared that called for political change.

Beijing dropped most of its Covid-related controls in December, 2022 and reopened its borders in January 2023, lifting the mandatory quarantine on entry. Analysts have attributed this to political pressure from the protests and growing economic difficulties.

Critics of the film, who supported the zero-Covid policy, argued that easing the restrictions led to countless deaths but many noted the deaths were because of Beijing’s lack of preparedness in terms of vaccines and medical facilities.

In a popular post, one blogger with nearly 300,000 followers, praised the Chinese government for “protecting our lives during the three years”.

Official Chinese government data shows 83,150 deaths linked to Covid-19 between mid-December 2022 and early February last year, a figure widely considered to be an underestimate.


Parents fear impact of China’s zero-Covid measures as post-lockdown college entrance exams begin

Parents fear impact of China’s zero-Covid measures as post-lockdown college entrance exams begin

At the end of 2022, researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimated that a mass infection within two months of mainland China abandoning its zero-Covid policy could result in 970,000 deaths.

A tally by the Post last year found that a dozen provincial regions had stopped providing public data, such as cremation numbers, for the fourth quarter of 2022, further clouding true death statistics.

Beijing has consistently maintained that both its pursuit of zero-Covid and its abrupt relaxation of controls in 2022 were the right decisions.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.