‘76 Days’ Review: Fortitude on China’s Frontlines

You hear variations on the phrase “Stay strong!” throughout “76 Days,” a humane chronicle of four hospitals in Wuhan, China early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because the medical staff, patients, and concerned relatives all grasp the vital importance of keeping up one’s spirits during the fight. When fear and uncertainty compounded the menace of the coronavirus, a few encouraging words or a (gloved) hand squeeze could mean a lot.

For New Yorkers especially, the prospect of recalling the pandemic’s initial onslaught might sound less than inviting. But the filmmakers — Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and a journalist credited as “Anonymous” — don’t simply replay horrors that were on endless loop in the spring. “76 Days,” which gets its title from the Wuhan lockdown imposed from January 23 to April 8, is defined more by the human capacity for resilience and compassion than by a relentless sense of doom (or by a focus on China’s policy decisions). Though the movie reckons with suffering, it’s also a workplace documentary about doctors and nurses doing their utmost to help, clad in full-body suits playfully decorated with doodles and writing.

Their patients tend to be wearing street clothes, a familiar image which still has the effect of expressing how Covid-19 can catch victims unawares. The roving camera keeps returning to a few people (though names are largely avoided). A middle-aged couple, sick in separate rooms, pass messages to each other; a pregnant woman who tested positive goes through delivery and then anxiously quarantines with her husband; an older fellow, formerly a fisherman, roams the halls looking for an exit.

Touch is at a premium in these circumstances, and Wu — who freely assembled the film in the United States from what his co-directors shot — brings out the attempts to connect. The progress of one patient who can’t speak is measured by her grip, as we see her holding onto a caring medical attendant, then later unresponsive. The film opens at a frantic run with a nurse racing to say goodbye to her deceased father, though she cannot hug him.

Outdoors, the sparse streets take time to recover. Wu (who directed “People’s Republic of Desire”) signals a turning of the corner through the young couple’s healthy baby daughter, and concludes with a recognition of grief. As the virus resurges across the world, “76 Days” suggests a way to face the future, with tears but perhaps also hope.

76 Days
Not rated. In Mandarin with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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