76 Days is a big story told in tiny moments.
Its premise is obviously major: Two directors, Weixi Chen and an anonymous reporter, embedded themselves in hospitals in Wuhan and Shanghai at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, during the 76-day lockdown of Wuhan. (A third director, Hao Wu, stayed in New York to edit the film.)
But there’s no unified narrative or obvious lesson being served up here, no analysis of the virus’ origins, or the Chinese government’s reaction, or the global consequences that followed. Indeed, 76 Days often seems not to be making any point at all. Which maybe, in itself, is the point. The day-to-day ordeal faced by these patients and their doctors and nurses is what it is, and worth bearing witness to in and of itself.
What hits hardest and lingers longest 76 Days are not the big ups and downs, but the tiny details.
The film opens with one of its most heart-wrenching scenes. A woman begs hospital staff to let her see her dying father, and then screams and sobs as he’s eventually brought out in a body bag. This is how the start of 2020 was experienced by so many in Wuhan and around the world, as a time of fear and confusion and grief, further compounded by the danger of a new disease and the social distancing it demands.
But from there, 76 Days shifts to the perspective from inside the hospital. The earliest scenes, set in the earliest days, show exhausted nurses crumpled on benches and scared people crowding the hospital doors in hopes of snagging a bed before they fill up. Meanwhile, we, too, are scrambling to figure out exactly what we’re looking at. Subtitles are among the only embellishments to the film’s fly-on-wall footage; there are no talking heads or diagrams to explain any of what we’re seeing. 76 Days is a grueling watch not just because it’s sad, but because it’s purposefully a bit tedious. It really is just 93 minutes of watching people do their jobs or try to get better.
Gradually, though, a few recurring “characters” and storylines emerge. There’s a restless grandfather who keeps wandering out of his room, a couple kept apart for fear of cross-contamination, a volunteer who had a “hero’s dream” of helping out in Wuhan, the bedridden patient who squeezed her nurse’s hand every day until she couldn’t anymore. We watch as some get better and others get worse, as nurses joke around with cranky patients or steel themselves to call the bereaved with their condolences.
These moments feel raw and intimate. Though they’re not offering new information you haven’t seen already in news reports or read already in the papers, hearing about the experiences of nurses and doctors and patients is one thing; being dropped into the thick of them is another. 76 Days quietly brings back the subtleties of day-to-day life that tend to get lost in ostentatious celebrations of frontline heroes, or macro analyses of the pandemic’s global effects.
What hits hardest and lingers longest about this movie are not the big ups and downs, but the tiny details: the beads of condensation inside a hospital worker’s goggles, the inflated glove with “get well soon” scrawled on it by some hopeful nurse, the cell phone lighting up with 31 missed messages from inside a box labeled “ID cards and phones of the dead.” A new mom presses her face against the glass, looking for the baby she’s been unable to meet during quarantine. A nurse hands a death certificate to the daughter of a patient, repeating: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Outside the hospitals, the world continues to turn. At first, the highways of Wuhan are eerily deserted, the only signs of life an occasional speeding ambulance. Gradually, the streets start to fill back in again with more cars, then bikes, then individuals running errands, then pairs of friends catching up amid falling cherry blossoms. The mood on both sides of the walls shifts, slowly and tentatively, from the kind of despair that has one patient pleading for death, to something like hope. It’s fragile, but after the movie we’ve just seen, we understand exactly how hard-earned it was.
76 Days is now playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. No theatrical release date has been set.