76 days is a big story that is told in tiny moments.
The premise is obviously important: two directors, Weixi Chen and an anonymous reporter, embedded themselves in hospitals in Wuhan and Shanghai during the 76-day lockdown on Wuhan at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. (A third director, Hao Wu, stayed in New York to edit the film.)
But there is no single narrative or overt teaching here, no analysis of the origin of the virus, the Chinese government’s response, or the global consequences that follow. Indeed, 76 days often doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. Which is perhaps the point in itself. The daily ordeal these patients and their doctors and nurses face is what it is and it is worth bearing testimony in and of itself.
What hits the hardest and lasts the longest 76 days are not the great ups and downs, but the tiny details.
The film opens with one of its most heartbreaking scenes. A woman asks hospital staff to let her see her dying father and then screams and sobs as he is finally brought out in a body bag. In this way, the beginning of 2020 has been seen by so many in Wuhan and around the world as a time of fear, confusion and grief, compounded by the threat of a new illness and the social distancing that comes with it.
But from there 76 days changes perspective from the hospital. The earliest scenes, set in the earliest days, feature exhausted nurses crumpled up on benches and scared people crowding hospital doors in hopes of grabbing a bed before they fill up. In the meantime, we also try to find out exactly what we are seeing. Subtitles are among the only embellishments on the fly-on-wall footage of the film. There are no speaking heads or diagrams to explain what we are seeing. 76 days is a busy watch, not just because it’s sad, but because it’s a little boring on purpose. It really is only 93 minutes to watch people do their jobs or try to get better.
Gradually, however, some recurring “characters” and storylines emerge. There is a restless grandfather who keeps wandering out of his room, a couple who are kept apart for fear of cross-contamination, a volunteer who had the “heroic dream” of helping in Wuhan, the bedridden patient who shakes hands with hers every day Nurse squeezed until she couldn’t anymore. We watch some get better and others get worse as nurses joke with moody patients or steel themselves to call the bereaved with condolences.
These moments feel raw and intimate. While they don’t offer new information that you haven’t seen in the news reports or read in the newspapers, hearing about the experiences of nurses, doctors, and patients is one thing. being dropped in the middle of them is another. 76 days quietly brings back the intricacies of daily life that tend to get lost in ostentatious celebrations of frontline heroes or macro-analysis of the global impact of the pandemic.
What hits the hardest and lingers longest on this film are not the great ups and downs, but the tiny details: the beads of condensation in the protective goggles of a hospital employee, the inflated glove with the words “Get well soon” scrawled on it by a hopeful nurse The cell phone lights up with 31 missed messages in a box labeled “ID Cards and Phones of the Dead”. A new mother presses her face against the glass and searches for the baby she was unable to meet during the quarantine. A nurse gives a patient’s daughter a death certificate and repeats, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Outside the hospitals, the world keeps turning. At first the highways of Wuhan are incredibly deserted, the only signs of life being an occasional speeding ambulance. Gradually the streets are filling up again with more cars, then bicycles, then errands, then friends catching up amid falling cherry blossoms. The mood on either side of the walls slowly and cautiously changes from the kind of desperation in which a patient asks for death to something like hope. It’s fragile, but after the movie we just saw, we understand exactly how hard it’s earned.
76 days now plays at the Toronto International Film Festival. No theatrical release date has been set.