It’ll take some time before we really come to terms with the depths of COVID-19’s devastation. It’s hard to grapple with the severity of a disaster when you’re still caught in the eye of the storm. We haven’t seen the last of this deadly and debilitating disease, and it’s hard to know when we ever will. A year ago, you hardly heard a single soul utter the word “coronavirus.” Now, it’s hard to have a conversation where it’s not mentioned in the first few seconds. We’re in a new normal for the time being, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. Because at least for the United States, the worst is yet to come, unfortunately.
In Wuhan, China — one of the cities most devastated by the aftermath of this ongoing disease and the place where it’s believed the virus originated and then evolved — several overworked hospitals care for patients young and old as they suffer from this well-reported airborne illness. In 76 Days, a new documentary from directors Hao Wu and Weixi Chen (a third filmmaker is also involved but kept anonymous), we’re given incredible access into the early months of 2020 (which, to us, surely feels like a lifetime ago), as the disease ravishes this country and starts spreading rapidly worldwide. The epidemic has led hospital workers to wear hazmat suits throughout daily operations, giving each of them an eery otherworldliness that would feel like something out of a horror film if it didn’t seem so close to what our lives might one day become.
The opening moments include one such medical worker wailing as her father spends his final moments on his deathbed. She tries to walk into the room to say goodbye and give her father some peace in his final moments, but she’s held back, despite her protests. Tragically, her peers know the truth: to enter that room with her dying parent is, in effect, giving her a death wish. It could not only result in her own death but the loss of countless others if this hospital is left without another caregiver. To sacrifice herself to her family is to essentially put thousands of others in uncertain terms. The choice is clear, but no less painful. The only farewell she can give is watching him be pushed away into the morgue. Keep in mind, this is how 76 Days starts. This is only a mere glimpse into the terrors and heartbreaks which have befallen this community.
Naturally, it’s hard to imagine many folks actually wanting to watch this type of film right now, though I’d argue it should perhaps become mandatory viewing. To witness the horrors that’ve shaken Wuhan (and the country and now the world as a result) is to understand at least to some extent the severity of this persistent pandemic. Anyone downplaying this nightmare is either decidedly being ignorant or not truly comprehending the intensity of this global threat. Bold terms, certainly, but this isn’t a lighthearted matter.
Whenever (or if ever) the time comes when we can look back at this moment in history with hindsight and contemplation, 76 Days will be a small little time capsule of what became of our global population and how we ultimate dealt — or tried to deal — with such relentless devastation. The starkly unwavering and typically brutal fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité approach rarely shies away from the haunting and horrific pain and panic that only continues to become commonplace in the midst of a nationwide lockdown. These four hospitals are mere microcosms of the country and the world at large during these early days of 2020. The inner lives of these hospital workers and their patients aren’t explored with too much intent. The sense of loss and grief is felt but only seen in small slivers. Like I said before, we’re still in the storm. 76 Days is practically caught up inside a tidal wave. Clarity can’t really be found at this time.
Yet for as often as 76 Days focuses on a country in the midst of chaos, it’s not without glimmers of unsuspecting hope. We briefly see new parents as they finally get to cuddle with their baby following 30 days of isolation. We do see patients walk away from the hospital, heading back into an uncertain few days ahead of them. For better or worse, 76 Days wants to leave us with a sense of peace, which is a humane way to tell such a relevant story. It’ll take more time before we realize whether this narrative decision is either for the best or ill-fated.
There’s undeniable urgency to 76 Days, particularly since it’s premiering only a few months after it finished filming. The world is falling apart as China attempts to rebuild, which might either be a sign of hope or a misleading notion that we’ll find the end of this tunnel in the near future. It can be hard to review something that is such a product of this current moment, one that doesn’t feel too far extended from what we’re still attempting to explain to ourselves during widespread disorder and dismay. Nevertheless, 76 Days isn’t here to give us any easy answers, and it’s an undeniably revealing and riveting portrait of this unpredictable year, seen briefly during the early days before we (or, at least, unassuming Americans) really understood the gravity of this global catastrophe. But this documentary is, ultimately, a reflection of the past, even if it might give us a glimpse into our future. Particularly if we continue to make little strides to fix our current situation. But as I’ve already noted, the future is left unclear. The storm isn’t settling down anytime soon.
Who knows how devastating it’ll be in the days, months, or years left ahead? This is merely a brief look at what Wuhan dealt with in the early days of 2020. There’s still damage to be wrought and loss to be felt, though hope might yet be found. But we can’t lose sight of the blowing winds and ravishing tides in clear view.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.