Film Review: 76 Days - A Humanizing Look Into the Wuhan Lockdown

James Shih

Still from 76 Days.

Over a year ago Wuhan, China–the most populous city in Hubei province with 11 million people–was completely locked down to stop the spread of the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 (COVID-19). The film 76 Days documents the 76-day Wuhan lockdown through the story of frontline workers and patients in four hospitals in Wuhan.

76 Days premiered at the virtual 2020 Toronto International Film Festival with a strong reception. The festival notes read,"76 Days excels beyond mere reportage [...] In the face of fear and uncertainty, we also witness perseverance and humour, as medical workers use magic markers to decorate their plastic outfits." The tension and stakes of the film are felt viscerally through the camera that does not shy away from moving closer than six feet to it's subjects.

This is a heart-wrenching film that may be a bit much for one to take in a single sitting. It's a rare glimpse into what ground zero looked like in the Wuhan hospitals at a time where no one really knew much about the disease. At the start of the pandemic, we see how overrun their medical system was: a harbinger of what was to come in Italy, the U.S., and other countries. There are not enough beds and people are crowding the doors. One doctor loses her cool and begins shouting at the potential patients to stand back or no one is getting in.

It’s amazing to see the kinds of characters and heroes that naturally surface over the course of the lockdown. This is thanks to the many hours of footage captured by co-directors Weixi Chen and an anonymous filmmaker, along with a number of additional cinematographers, who risked their lives. The editing also shapes the dramatic storytelling of this film.

In an interview, editor and co-director Hao Wu, a New York based Chinese filmmaker, shared how the China-based filmmakers would upload the content to the cloud and then Wu would download and edit the footage. Due to the lag in the workflow (downloading all the files could take days) he couldn't really direct the cinematographers and instead focused on editing around the human stories that attracted him the most. Wu states that the anonymous filmmaker chose to withhold his/her name because they weren't sure how the footage would be used and if it could lead to them being reprimanded by the Chinese government.

Overall the story is gripping and deeply humanizing. In the U.S., there are Americans that see Wuhan as a backwards place with wet markets, but it's a huge metropolitan city that's considered a technology hub: in the film we catch a glimpse of people picking up their meat orders through WeChat pay.

I enjoy the focus on the frontline workers and seeing how they're risking their lives each day. The care and the love that the doctors and nurses give their patients is incredibly touching, from saving lives of patients through resuscitation to making a "get well soon" glove doll, it's a gift to see such imagery. There is also a touching story of the parents and their newborn daughter that they have to wait to see due to the mother potentially having COVID-19.

What is missing from the film is any sort of geopolitical context. The filmmaker Hao Wu said that his goal for the film was not to be political but instead to focus on the human stories. I understand this sentiment, but I do feel it can lead to a bit of tunnel vision. Maybe by adding just enough context for the viewer about the disease, how the lockdown was perceived in China, and how the rest of the world was watching Wuhan, could place us viewers in a better position to feel the human stories.

It’s a good observational documentary that participates at certain moments of the film: one time the cinematographer asks an older patient if they want to leave the hospital after an extended stay there, in which they reply, "No, I like the people here. My hometown is backwards." Watching many of the intimate scenes, I'm impressed by how much access the filmmakers were able to gain in the hospitals. In the interview, Wu states that it's easier than most people think: as long as a reporter is able to get the permission of the hospital director, they're able to get in with plenty of access; the doctors and nurses are too busy to care.

The narratives of the two main frontline workers are the main throughline of the film, but they disappear for a little bit in the middle, before the story circles back to them. This may be in due part to Hao Wu being unable to direct the cinematographers in China to capture more footage specifically on them. Regardless, this film is a harrowing portrait of what it means to be a frontline worker on ground zero and is definitely an important film for people to watch to display the realities of what fighting COVID-19 can be like.

I feel that this film is particularly important for Americans to see. With the rise of COVID-19, there has been a rise in anti-Asian racism and attacks in the U.S. This was fueled by the previous administration labelling the virus as "Chinese" or the "kung-flu." What this terminology does is it dehumanizes Asians as dirty and as carriers of the disease.

What is powerful about this film and why it's so important is that it humanizes it's subjects who are all Chinese. It's a very local Wuhan story, but the struggles and loss that the individuals face, has no nationality. When an old man decries the hospital, calling it a prison for quarantining him, but later thanking each and every doctor and nurse for their sincere effort, it's a beautiful thing to see.

By dispelling the myth of "the other" and seeing those with Asian faces as human beings fighting desperately against this virus as well, is an education deeply needed for many Americans.

76 Days is currently only available to view virtually through their site here:

Poster for the film 76 Days.

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I enjoy writing about film/TV, travel, slice of life, language, Asian American issues, and other interests. Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment or message if you have any thoughts to share =).

Los Angeles, CA

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