The Wuhan-Set Movie Donald ‘Chinese Virus’ Trump Needs to See
Chinese filmmaker Diao Yi’nan’s latest, “The Wild Goose Lake”—streaming on Apple TV+—is a stylish and sophisticated neo-noir that sheds light on the city demonized by the right.
In the Chinese director Diao Yi’nan’s latest film, The Wild Goose Lake—streaming now on Apple TV+—details are located not in narrative but in atmosphere. The key for the restless viewer—perhaps still in lockdown in the midst of a global pandemic—is to not get lost in the story, but to be present in place.
Zhou Zenong, a motorbike thief involved in an extensive crime syndicate, is on the run from the law, having mistakenly shot a police officer after being attacked himself by a fellow gang member. A young, still-faced sex worker—Liu Ai’ai—with a chic olive handbag and a red and white pack of cigarettes meets him at South train station, in Wuhan. They don’t know each other, but both operate in a fast-moving and often ruthless undercommons. This is the Wild Goose Lake district, which, a police chief points out, is still “uncontrolled,” elusive. And the stillness with which Diao imbues every frame demands that we look deeper into the soul of this world than the status quo would allow.
Wuhan, of course, is a place that Donald Trump has maligned with his xenophobic and racist dog whistles, claiming that the novel coronavirus was somehow concocted in the city where brave health-care workers and locals first encountered the outbreak of the virus in late 2019 and were able to beat it back earlier this year. (In the U.S., the woefully insufficient response to the virus has led to a new increase in cases in many reopened states, and Trump’s administration has just decided to withdraw the country from the only true authority on the matter, the World Health Organization.) Trump’s claims have led directly to hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. The Wild Goose Lake, expansive in its depiction of a relatively tiny corner of the huge Wuhan, offers a reminder of how small the imaginations of our leaders are.
The Wild Goose Lake is a supremely stylish film, and so it’s easy to worry that Diao has elided some deeper intellectual meaning for beauty’s sake. However, that binary doesn’t hold—the film’s depth is in the constraints posed by its style: the black market subsists on various sleights of hand or alternately subtle and flagrant maneuvers around law and order. What emerges from these images are questions about who exactly is the master of this underground art. Like any neo-noir, the sex worker femme fatale is never transparent. Yet neither is our anti-hero Zenong, who doesn’t say much, and when he does, often refuses to commit to a single set of intentions. Of course, the police also lie, as do the various bosses both Zenong and Ai’ai are indebted to. Even Zenong’s estranged wife must choose complicity—though to who, exactly? There’s no sturdy backbone of righteousness present in this world, and perhaps not even beyond it; your loyalties remain diffuse until the very end.
It’s a compelling set-up for a film in a world marked not merely by misinformation but active distortion and spin. No one in The Wild Goose Lake has illusions about authoritative benevolence, which, in the end, saves them a lot of trouble. Instead, each character works out a puzzle of interpersonal alliances; real trust is exceptional, an intimacy only reserved for an unexpected coupling that I won’t reveal here.
Like Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s similarly quiet thriller from last year, The Whistlers, communication in The Wild Goose Lake becomes a vector endowed with constantly evolving symbols. There are looks, shoulder brushes, turned backs, slurped noodles, and clutched possessions. Spoken language is either a formality or means of control—you have to take your cues from the body. In that way, it’s a film marked by a feminine impulse, which is to say that mastery—of the undercommons as well as above-board society—is not in brute dominance but in skillful mirroring.
I look forward to focusing more on quieter films as our new physically distant reality expands into an unknown future. The difficulty in being present in moments like these is that the practice allows so much in—noise, talk, or plot can feel forgiving in what it determinedly leaves out. But this new way of being is a welcome reminder that in fact there are films worth returning to, stories that can’t simply be heard or seen, but must be steeped in. The Wild Goose Lake offers some of this year’s most compelling questions about social order, specifically about how we might situate ourselves in a world that seems to reject us.