It is hardly a pressing concern, of course, but what screen drama is going to look like after Covid is, increasingly, a point to ponder. Reality has given the lie to so much now, and never more clearly than in the new offering from documentary maker Hao Wu (with the newcomer Weixi Chen), 76 Days (Sky Documentaries).
It is a fly-on-the-wall, 95-minute film that is set almost entirely in the main hospital in Wuhan during the 76 days that the Chinese city in which the virus originated shut down to try to contain its spread. People bang on the doors to be let in, as we have been taught to expect, but the staff are much more succinct and unconvulsed by sorrow when they have to keep them outside. There is no time for reflection or self-indulgence in a crisis, as Covid has reaffirmed.
Everyone within is fully masked, hazmat-suited and booted, as is familiar from the likes of Outbreak (the monkey, Dustin Hoffman one) and Contagion (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, everyone dies, quite boring). But will we, in the films to come, have characters drawing messages and sprays of flowers over their PPE, as the Wuhan staff do? We know that, under the worst pressure, people take refuge in art and humour; will we incorporate these responses into future disaster movies? How will we represent grief and distress having been face to face with them for so long?
76 Days opens with howls of agony, as a woman pleads desperately to be allowed to see her father for one last time. We have been trained via screen conventions to accept the facsimile of such scenes, but whether that artifice can endure post-pandemic is anyone’s guess.
The film rarely strays outside the hospital, which holds about 50 Covid patients with symptoms of varying severity. You long to hear more about the wider measures being implemented by the local and central governments – even if the news of such stringency and competence compared with what Britain’s leaders have mustered is likely to bring on a stroke. Or something about the particular politics of China that makes such control possible. But the tight focus manages to give a sense of the epic scale of the pandemic – the relentlessness of the disease, the staggering amount of work, the siege-like mentality and the pervasive exhaustion. The weight of the losses and the glory of the triumphs within the hospital give an idea of how much, in all senses, it has cost the world.
Perhaps there is a languorous stretch in the middle, once the initial excitement has worn off, but the personalities and back stories have not yet fully gained traction. But so be it: it conveys the claustrophobia and creeping boredom that afflicts any long-term situation, even an ongoing emergency. Aren’t we lucky that this is our main problem, instead of a body-bagged father being trollied past us in a corridor, or waking up, as one patient did at home, to find our mother dead beside us, then having to leave her to take our virus-filled family to hospital?
Boxes fill with the disinfected mobile phones of the departed – “31 unread messages”, flashes one – ready for the relatives to collect them when the hospital can spare the time and the staff. An elderly patient wanders around, angry and confused at first, then tearful. His son rings him for a pep talk. “You used to be a Communist party member! Look at your actions now!” Telling the staff that his father has dementia and should be being given medication is slightly more help. “Uncle Li”, as the staff begin to call him, settles, becomes far happier and in the end seems sorry to be discharged to his overcrowded home, in which multiple generations of his family live. “They pick on me,” he says, a new, no less bleak, story suddenly opening up before us as he walks out of the hospital. It is a reminder that the pandemic doesn’t press pause on other suffering, but simply adds another layer.
There are no hugely dramatic moments in 76 Days. It is wholly unsentimental and, allowing for the fact the stream of events must be put into some kind of narrative form, unmanipulative. Everything builds by increments. It is tiny, quiet exchanges that knock the wind out of you and show how immersed you have become in the small, enclosed world.
“I tried to give you money,” remembers one patient as his doctor prepares him for discharge. “How could I accept that?” replies the doctor. “Regardless,” says the man. “I owe you my life. I’ll never forget.” They shake hands. “Remember to wash your hands again,” says the doctor, as he heads back to the wards.