Nobody could possibly have imagined, even imagined the spiral our planet would’ve experienced when this period of pandemic anxiety began. When so much was still unknown about the virus, the goal them, and the goal now was protection. The greatest difference between March and December of this year, was that fear being a lot greater, and the victories proving more meaningful. And in the sobering new documentary 76 Days, that race against time to reach that sweet point of calm is expressed most timely, urgently, and with the same level of caution enacted onto the very mechanics of human life since the first extreme outbreak.
76 Days, named such after the lengthy lockdown forced upon the residents of Wuhan, China in the earliest part of the pandemic, buries itself deep into the strain placed on the doctors and nurses around 4 of the city’s busiest hospitals, and some of the people most vulnerable and in need of treatment. The desperation of fellow medics can be seen right from the start, as one loses her father in the wing she’s operating in. Clearly, very few facial expressions can be seen behind the necessary PPE, but her panic sets in, just wanting a moment to say goodbye, but knowing it is just too late. Close by is a wandering old man with clear signs of dementia refusing to stay still, and rather unfazed by the present danger outside his door. And even further nearby, a young couple with their first child, just newborn, and having to be shielded from a mother whom in the hours leading up to delivery tested positive for the virus, while also awaiting the kid’s prognosis.
These three subplots are among many where the day-to-day struggles in a typical hospital are only continually magnified by the looming threat of a respiratory threat that’s dogged the world for what appears to be more than one eternity. Director and compassionate journalist Weixi Chen never shies away from the raw real-world strife this virus can bring, executed under the wildest, fly-on-the-wall conditions. Think one of those old Discovery Channel reality shows, but with more under the radar activity. The Chinese government didn’t necessarily approve of this film’s existence, the propagandist messaging around bare city streets, urging residents to stay home, follow national and local ordinances during an extreme late-winter lockdown, being the clearest sign of transparency Chen and editor Hao Wu share with utmost bravery.
A nearly empty Wuhan and the darkness it wrought as a symbol of the utter seriousness at hand is one thing, and it leaves a chill to the spine whenever an establishing shot is needed. Another is the level of care Chen gives to shining light on those unsung heroes, to all the frontline professionals of that community (and in dedication to all those worldwide giving their all this year), working on all cylinders to treat what’s treatable, or provide solace and connectivity for those who won’t pull through. They make clear the importance of sanitizing a person’s personal effects (ID card, cellphone, perhaps a whole wallet) in avoiding a minor biohazard in itself upon returning them to next of kin.
There may be the smallest of cultural disconnect, but the pacing, the very interpretation captured before the cameras should not feel too different. Compared to say one’s most recent hospital experience, whether it had been this year or slightly before, when our healthcare system was already facing fractures. 76 Days should carry that feel for medical-grade agony, never looking past the facts of this outbreak, the loss it bears, and the franticness among exhausted staff to contain and to heal. It’s a familiar cadence that will seem like old hat to many in lockdown fatigue while awaiting a long winter’s third, even fourth waves. It will be an impossible film to watch, its gut-churning visuals destined to haunt, as much as it looks to caution. But it’s certainly an important film to herald, as one retains hope by this time next year, this realistic snapshot can be nothing more than a scholarly time capsule, instead of the presently living nightmare that’s still occurring, of the hardship, and certainly of the compassions to follow. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
76 Days is streaming this weekend in virtual cinemas nationwide including Seattle’s SIFF Cinema, please give them a look; film not rated; 93 minutes.