Where were you on January 23, 2020? Outside Wuhan, it was the date when reports of the coronavirus reached a new and grimly dizzying pitch. Inside the city, 11m people were placed in a confinement so strict it was given a dystopian name: lockdown. Now, an endless year later, Chinese documentary 76 Days acts as an eye witness in four Wuhan hospitals over the length of that first covid limbo. We stay only in the wards and corridors, hospital life hermetically sealed. With good reason. As the film begins, so much of Wuhan is sick that a throng has massed outside one ICU, panicked and pleading for treatment, held back behind a single locked door. The scene resembles a zombie movie.
The viewer who is here for a general exposé of China’s handling of the outbreak will need a different film. Yet the fear is raw enough to feel some way from an official blessing. If the chaos that would engulf hospitals in Milan and New York does not transpire, the abyss is close enough. Nine camera operators braved infection to capture the footage; it was then shaped by New York-based director Hao Wu, working with Weixi Chen and another anonymous Chinese journalist.
The result is a time capsule in waiting, a real-time record of medicine adapting to the viciously unknown. Mummified in PPE, Wuhan’s vanguard of nurses tend to patients who decline or recover seemingly at random. When one dies, staff are left to parcel their phones into plastic envelopes to be returned to grieving families. Some ring inside their bags — the sound of a world still catching up with the worst possible news.
On digital platforms in the UK from January 22