If the arrival of vaccines offers some hope of the year-consuming COVID-19 pandemic eventually cooling off, the attendant mini-genre of the coronavirus documentary is only getting warmed up. For years to come, we can doubtless anticipate dozen upon dozen of films probing all angles of what happened and how, what went wrong and how much. Some are sure to be hasty and opportunistic, others hopefully more penetrating in their application of hindsight. A documentary like “76 Days,” however, can’t be made too soon: It is, by necessity, an entirely in-the-moment affair, seizing its single chance to chronicle the first wave of medical crisis management in the Chinese city of Wuhan, weeks before the world followed it into a state of lockdown.
As an artefact alone, the result is remarkable, capturing all the panic and pragmatism greeting a disaster before its entire global impact had been gauged, while strategies and protocols are adjusted on the hoof. As a film, then, “76 Days” didn’t even need to be as good as it is: That it’s so artfully and elegantly observed, and packs such a candid wallop of feeling, atop its frontline urgency is testament to the grace and sensitivity of its directorial team, not just their timely savvy.
Chinese-American docmaker Hao Wu steered and edited the project remotely, never meeting his two China-based co-directors — Weixi Chen and one who has elected to remain anonymous — in person, as they shot and gathered observational footage from four different Wuhan hospitals between January and April of this year. (The title refers to the city’s period of lockdown in that time.) Yet the finished film feels entirely fluent and focused, bearing little trace of its creators’ separation, and maintaining a consistent but unobtrusive point of view.
Wu opens proceedings on a direct punch to the gut, as a nurse, clad in a hazmat suit, races down a hospital corridor to say goodbye to her own father, who has been admitted while dying of the virus. She’s too late; the composure expected of her profession deserts her as she breaks down outside the ward, wailing with grief while her colleagues try and fail to calm her. “You must control yourself,” one says: It may sound callous, but if medical workers can’t suppress their terror and despair at the chaos around them, what hope is there for their overwhelming surge of patients? Free of external commentary or context, it’s a devastating vignette that clues us into the film’s blunt, unsentimental human-interest approach: There are other films to be made about the politics of the pandemic, but this is not one.
At first glance, the hospitals resemble a kind of alien war zone, patrolled by doctors and orderlies swaddled in white, expression-concealing PPE. Gradually, however, humanity emerges — as do distinct personalities — from its eerie protective shield. (Names, however, are mostly withheld.) Everyday demonstrations of empathy and comfort between doctors and nurses (many of whom have traveled from other cities to be of aid) and their frightened, uncertain charges survive any physical restrictions. One nurse inflates a medical glove like a balloon, inscribing it with a smiley face and a “get well soon” message, and leaves it on the bedside of an elderly, unaccompanied patient. Another takes on the job of storing and sanitizing the personal effects of the deceased, to be returned to their families at a later date: A shot of a plastic tub filled with cellphones, sporadically ringing for the dead, is as piercing as anything here.
Patients get equally close, caring scrutiny from the filmmakers — some just as passing, fretful faces in the melee, while others’ extended stories give the film its narrative ballast and emotional pull. One solitary, dementia-addled old man is nicknamed “Grandpa” by the staff, initially out of exasperation as he refuses to follow protective protocol and repeatedly tries to escape the hospital, though that shifts to quasi-familial affection as the months pass. Elsewhere, we follow a young woman as she gives birth while experiencing COVID symptoms; the ensuing weeks of quarantine before she and her husband can meet their newborn make for a tense, bittersweet subplot amid more frenzied hospital drama, and could well have filled a separate film.
What happy endings “76 Days” does find are all the more poignantly compromised for the knowledge that the film’s April endpoint is so far from any manner of resolution in this pandemic. Wu and his co-directors are wise to keep the film’s focus so specifically and evocatively local — not least because flashes of the experience presented here will seem vividly familiar to viewers in other territories — but it’s hard not to watch without the vast global death toll to come pressing heavily on one’s mind. While residents in many countries clapped outside their windows and front doors in honor of medical workers’ travails, “76 Days” ends on a harsher public gesture: the chilling shriek of air raid sirens, sounded across the city at the end of lockdown, in honor of the dead. In doing so, Wuhan chose to foreground the cold severity of the crisis, trusting human kindness to happen of its own accord: This stoically broken-hearted film takes a similar tack.
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