Before it became a global issue, and long before it began to affect each and every one of us, on January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan, China issued a lockdown order because of a fast moving virus that had begun to rapidly sweep through their community: the novel coronavirus. As many began to panic, medical professionals had to stay level headed and calm as they dealt with
some of the greatest emotional and physical stress in their careers. Alongside them, directors Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and another unnamed filmmaker, set out to capture a unique perspective into the center of what has now become one of the deadliest disasters in modern history, throughout the harrowing seventy six days of the first lockdown in Wuhan.
The documentary opens with a scene of a daughter grieving for her recently-deceased father as he is being taken away and doctors hold her back to prevent infection. A dystopian nightmare, the way in which the directorial trio is able to capture the entirety of the film results in a haunting and arresting experience that makes one feel as if they are right there with the nurses and doctors who are taking charge at the frontline of this virus. Because of the filmmakers, we are able to feel the pain, anger, frustration, and perplexion of both professionals and patients alike who must figure out how to deal with the unprecedented nature of their situation.
Trading talking heads for intimate first person visuals, Wu and Chen are able to deliver a product that could be taken at face value as a traditional narrative film if stripped of its context-filled documentary nature, which is a grand testament to their abilities showcased here. Yet, the filmmakers are still able to include the presence of many character-driven arcs, adding a more emotional and human layer missing in various documentaries of its style. Recurring characters such as a confused grandpa, a defenseless newborn, and a woman with a unique bracelet, pop up time and time again as we see their heartbreaking journeys that have unfortunately become all too relatable in these times.
However, while the heavy focus on the events surrounding the hospitals and first responders is admirable, the documentary would have benefited from a much wider scope overall. The in-depth coverage of the inner workings of the central hospital was well rounded, but the relegation of other footage to transitional moments unfortunately prevented the film from being as impactful as it was striving to be. Gone is an exploration of the highly important political side of the pandemic (barring one telephone conversation) as well as the absence of any moments that show us the extent of the greater social and economical effects of the lockdown. While we are subtextually told through the struggles of many of the patients, we are never shown it to the depths that the filmmakers explored other angles, and film is, after all, a visual medium.
If incorporated, these wider angles would have provided an even greater context to the film, as well as allowing for more narrative fluidity while minimizing the repetitive and strung-together nature of the documentary. Perhaps that was what the film was trying to achieve: an intimate, small-scaled, and grounded portrayal of a well-known crisis through an unconventional lens. If so, their goal was well accomplished, but for a truly cohesive and larger study of what is still happening around the world, it seems as if we will need to wait for when after the virus subdues for a picture of this scope to be made.
76 Days is still a highly relevant and important film, and one that should be seen by all who do and do not believe in the severity of this pandemic. While it lacks a greater scope to make it as impactful and comprehensive as many will wish it to be, it is ultimately a timely showcase of cinema-verite filmmaking at its finest that successfully delivers a haunting look into the day-to-day life of a facet of the pandemic that has stayed relatively unexplored in our cultural conversation thus far.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.