76 Days (PG)
Directed by Wu Hao, Anonymous, Chen Weixi
Boy, I bet you this.
In the lottery of life and death that is the COVID-19 virus, if this intense documentary about the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, doesn't make you wanna put on five masks, take a triple dose of vaccinations and social-distance by hiding in a cave, then I don't know what will.
It's mostly humanising, but also terrifying because people gasp for air and actually die here. One poor soul hooked up to a ventilator never wakes up. We see her life slowly passing away despite one kind doctor's best efforts to keep hopes up by attaching to her breathing equipment a blown-up medical glove with a smiley face drawn on it.
The first part here is especially frightening and distressful. A distraught woman cries out for her dead father whom she's not allowed to see. “I want to see my papa off. I want to say goodbye,” she wails in agonising futility.
Circa right at the start, nobody knows what's going on and the chaos looks like a 28 Days Later-crisis situation of utter panic where totally frantic people try to break into a hospital in Wuhan — ground zero of the pandemic — seeking immediate treatment for something which they sense is ominously and urgently dire.
“Please step back, please co-operate, otherwise nobody gets in,” the overwhelmed nurses plead in desperation with a mob trying to push through the door in a besieged hospital. Meanwhile, the patients' mobile phones that have been dumped in a heap keep buzzing forlornly with no one around to answer them.
Look, 28 Days Later was a fictional virus infection Brit flick in 2002 of zero consequence. But 76 Days — the unimaginable total lockdown period in Wuhan from Jan 23 Apr 8 last year — is the real deal that's still plaguing the world right now. Man, our circuit breaker is nothing compared to the strict martial law-style shutdown captured here where citizens get orders barked at them while collecting food.
This film, shot in four different hospitals, was edited to make it look like it takes place in one composite location. In the production notes, the filmmakers actually ask reviewers to keep the names of the people and places they feature unidentified to avoid problems with Chinese authorities.
So, the big question is how the heck could this flick even have been made given the airtight censorship in China?
Co-director/writer/editor/chief instigator Hao Wu (2018's People's Republic Of Desire), born in China and based in America, was in Shanghai during the lockdown.
He couldn't get to Wuhan to film anything to verify his inner suspicions. “Is the outbreak really contained in Wuhan, or is the government lying?” he wrote in his director's statement. It's a mutual distrust which is unsurprising since the man was reportedly detained for about five months back in 2006 for attempting to film unauthorised Christian gatherings in his homeland.
Instead, the searingly intrusive footage we see in 76 Days was shot by two other witnesses right at the frontline in Wuhan — Chen Weixi and a person listed as “Anonymous” — who sent their crucial handheld footage online by stealth to Wu who put together the whole thing supposedly in a suburban basement in Atlanta, Georgia.
By the way, China at first apparently welcomed media coverage in their hospitals before clamping down on the prying eyes as the virus rampaged on, deaths mounted and tensions in the global community grew.
The end result here is a remarkable documentary which unnerves us, moves us and yet preserves our faith and belief in humanity. Primarily by way of the dedicated medical workers who soldier on stoically in their duties as they bolster their scared, isolated patients despite the unreal uncertainty surrounding everything and everybody. One indefatigable head nurse, Yang Li, surely deserves a Florence Nightingale medal for her basic goodness.
Although to be somewhat naturally cynical when it comes to PRC news, some scenes here seem like they are being played for the camera. Particularly a seriously over-caring volunteer doctor from Shanghai who kinda looks too good to be true. Plus you just wonder whether the sheer horror at the beleaguered hospital corridor seen in the beginning is a bit oversold since the turmoil stabilises just a tad too easily and too readily to an abnormal calmer normality.
Anyway, putting aside such cynicism, here's the main thing — the fear in the eyes of the folks afflicted by the virus are real, palpable, and very human.
The benevolent doc's tale is one of roughly six representative stories we can make out, a task that's made more difficult due to the fact that everybody pictured is either masked up or outfitted in indistinguishable hazmat gear. The staff can tell who's who mostly by the names scrawled on the back of their suits which eventually, as they get a handle on the crisis, include cutesy flowers drawn to boost morale.
We go on a journey of grateful recovery and sad demise with four severely stricken patients.
The said sick old woman fighting for her life on the lonely ventilator. An elderly fisherman is a confused restless rascal who just cannot stay in his room and keeps wandering off disobediently as he drives the staff crazy. “No one else does this. Only you are special,” he is scolded.
A grandpa who's a communist party member and cries in helpless hopeless dotage that escapes official government approval — “What can a communist party member do?” he sighs. And one patient who we root for instantly — a young pregnant woman who is readied for an operation to remove her baby via C-section.
If there is one lingering unsettling image from this movie, it has to be her petrified eyes on a masked face trying to comprehend what on earth is happening to her as she is being wheeled into the operating room with the camera trained directly on her.
Here in 76 Days, the virus strikes big. But humanness and humaneness are revealed in the small details.
Head nurse Yang Li, a caring heroine facing a callous unseen enemy, embodies the “hope and the human experience living through a common tragedy” which co-director Hao Wu wanted to bring forth essentially in this battered humanscape.
She wipes with disinfectant the abandoned items of departed patients and calls their families to come pick up their loved ones’ precious possessions.
“We did our best,” she comforts one grieving woman as she hands her a bag containing a mobile phone, a bracelet, and a death certificate unceremoniously over a cold lockdown barricade by the lifeless, emptied out roadside.
It's a small quiet act of kindness and empathy that shouts out hugely and loudly our vital, life-affirming humanity. (****)
Photos: mm2 Entertainment