(2020) Documentary (MTV Films) Various unidentified health care professionals and COVID patients Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous
2020 will long be remembered as a tumultuous, challenging year and for many, the defining factor was (and is) the COVID-19 global pandemic. It first surfaced in China in late 2019 and soon became a global concern when the large city of Wuhan went into lockdown as the infection rate rose beyond the area’s health care system ability to adequately handle the influx of sick patients.
During the lockdown, two Chinese reporters – Weixi Chen and one who declined to release their name – were embedded in four Wuhan-area hospitals to see firsthand how the health care professionals dealt with the crisis. The footage was then sent to Chinese-American Hao Wu (The People’s Republic of Desirei) in Atlanta to edit the footage and put together a narrative.
What the audience is given is a “you are-there” look inside hospitals dealing with a terrifying and largely unknown disease that was spreading like wildfire through the city. We are treated to an emotional wallop in the opening scene as a nurse in hazmat suit runs down a hospital corridor, clearly distraught; her own father has contracted the disease and is dying. She longs to see him one last time, but this is denied her and she simply put, loses it as is completely understandable. She can do nothing but sob helplessly as her father gasps his last and his body is taken away for burial.
This sets the expectation that this isn’t going to be an ordinary documentary We watch the doctors, nurses and technicians go about their daily routines which are anything but routine, watch as they grow progressivlely frustrated at the inability to treat the disease as they flail in the dark blindly, trying to alleviate the symptoms and save lives. Dealing with uncertainty and exhaustion, they are sometimes short with one another and often fall back on protocol in order to keep the hospital functioning in the face of rising panic. The patients are mostly terrified, wth the doctors able to bring them scant comfort and separated from loved ones who can only communicate with them via cell phone. In some cases, we have happy endings, as doctors see their recovered patients off as they are returned home to be quarantined an additional 14 days along with their family members.
There are some moments of wonderful tenderness, as a couple who have been separated from their newborn infant due to the mother having COVID when she delivered her, finally getting to meet their newborn after weeks of quarantine. We see a frustrating patient, an older man with dementia constantly battling his caregivers and refusing to follow their protocols, but eventually after weeks of hospitalization finally…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
There are also moments of grimness as we see a tub full of cell phones, taken from patients who have passed on, some of them ringing for those who can no longer answer. We also see the city streets deserted of traffic, a city that normally is bustling and alive, now a pandemic-induced ghost town. As the lockdown is lifted at the conclusion of the film, we hear the air raid sirens go off in memory of those that did not survive.
One of the memories I will take away from the film is one of the scenes near the end where a hospital administrator is charged with returning the disinfected personal effects of the deceased to their families. It’s heartbreaking to say the least and gives you an immediate understanding of the human toll of the disease; we see the numbers of the hospitalized and the dead, but we don’t really get it until we see the faces of those who are afflicted and of those who mourn the dead. It is a scene that is going on in thousands of hospitals across this country as well.
This is truly cinema verité, with the footage presented without commentary, musical accompaniement or much information beyond opening and closing title cards. The stories are allowed to be told with subtitleds flashing on the screen at a furious pace. The problem may be for those who have trouble reading them (and at times they are difficult to read because the subtitles are white and so too are the majority of hazmat suits and PPE worn by the medical professionals) quickly may quickly be left behind, for often the conversations are rapid fire as you might expect they would be in a crisis situation.
The movie is apolitical; they aren’t here to judge the Chinese nor compare them to anyone else. We just see events as they happened, edited to give context and to see the simple fact that most health care professionals are at heart deeply caring people no matter the nationality. We have been (rightfully) lionizing our frontline health care professionals of late for their extraordinary service to the community as we cope with a deadly pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States alone and more than two million dead worldwide. Here, we see firsthand why we are doing so.
As we are still in the thrall of the pandemic, it is understandable that many might not wish to see a movie with the immediacy of 76 Days but we should, if only to get an appreciation and perspective on the reality of what the disease has done to us. While there is no commentary on how effective the Chinese response was as opposed to the American response, one can’t help but wonder if the Americans, who unlike the Chinese questioned their doctors and disease specialists and refused to wear masks or socially dstance (by contrast, you don’t see a single citizen of Wuhan without a mask), you can’t help but wonder if our numbers might not have been so tragically high had we been as cooperative as a society as the Chinese were. Food for thought.
REASONS TO SEE: An immersive look at what frontline health care workers are going through. Powerful and gut-wrenching. A little eerie in places. Makes one wonder how different things would be here if we had followed the Chinese model.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the subtitles are hard to read quickly enough.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes having to do with the current pandemic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the amount of time that Wuham spent in lockdown during the initial crisis in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hot Zone
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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