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Sundance Review: “In the Same Breath” Expertly Dismantles the Notion of National Exceptionalism

Written by: Hannah Tran | February 2nd, 2021

Nanfu Wang, director of IN THE SAME BREATH, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Peter Hurley.

In the Same Breath (Nanfu Wang, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.

I remember talking about what was then only known as the coronavirus at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A year, multiple lockdowns, and countless deaths, tests and vaccines later, it is still actively entangled in the threat of our foreseeable future. Every day you hear people complain about wishing it was over, and every day people on TV tell you it’s not. But while so many wish they could move forward into a world that once was and may never be again, Chinese-American director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) fully dives into the months we are so desperately trying to forget. In a jam-packed 95 minutes, Wang examines the Covid-19 response from both the country she was born in and the one she lives in today in an almost manic attempt to unravel the dark truths lurking under each one’s nationalist aims.

Made in less than a year under the restrictions of a pandemic, the documentary In the Same Breath is forced to resort to unorthodox filming methods. Much of its material is gathered by proxy directly from Wuhan at the onset of the virus. What must have been hundreds, or even thousands, of hours of footage, however, is masterfully edited into a well-organized, concise indictment of the response to the images it shows. It does this most effectively when directly correlating the two countries at its center.

Wang’s intention is the pure pursuit of truth and transparency even if that means admitting to possibly being misguided in her own understanding of it. And Wang’s filmmaking goes beyond blaming a certain person, people or nation, but instead points to the frameworks that allow certain people to become corrupt. She gazes at the way nations present varying illusions of freedom, and she does so through a lens of empathy for their respective peoples. Unlike so many previous media surrounding the pandemic, Wang puts faces to the tragedy and forces you to draw your own conclusions as to who is at fault for their suffering.

A still from IN THE SAME BREATH by Nanfu Wang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

And while the material she presents may not be new to any of us, it is re-evaluated through an intelligent perspective that recontextualizes our perception and emotional frustration toward it. Along with its Come and See-esque ending, Wang respectfully highlights the unnecessity of the harrowing terror the pandemic was and is, and she does so in an easily palatable, personal and relatable way. In the extremely political context of In the Same Breath, what is most impressive is how it always prioritizes the humanity within it. Through its boundless empathy for these people, it only worsens the blow of the realization that the political systems affecting them have not truly changed and are not likely to when this sort of tragedy inevitably finds us again.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently studying film and English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to her studies, Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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