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Review: ‘76 Days’ takes an emotional look inside Wuhan hospitals during the COVID-19 lockdown

Exhausted hospital workers garbed in PPE in the documentary "76 Days."
(MTV Documentary Films)

The first minutes of the experiential COVID-19 documentary “76 Days” are claustrophobic and disorienting — a feeling not unlike your first trip to the grocery store while wearing a mask. But it gets better.

In the controlled chaos of a hospital’s corridors, everyone is sheathed head to toe in PPE. We see a woman screaming to say goodbye to her father and having to be restrained. A crowd bangs on a door pleading to be let in as the hospital staff reassures them that they will all be admitted if they only remain patient.

The date is Jan. 23, 2020, and it’s the first day of Wuhan, China’s lockdown, which will stretch the length of the film’s title. Wuhan has a population of 11 million — think New York City plus Chicago — and as the epicenter of the virus that rapidly spread around the world, officials acted quickly and decisively to try to contain it.

The documentary, however, is largely concerned with the patients and frontline medical workers in the four hospitals where it was shot. If Alex Gibney’s “Totally Under Control” (now on Hulu) is a macro-report of what went wrong with the U.S. response to the outbreak, “76 Days” is an apolitical, microbial view of what happens to the people at its point of impact.

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About 30 minutes in, the initial daze begins to lift and individual stories emerge — though it’s not always clear who is who due to the PPE or even that we are actually in different hospitals. But the connection between caregivers and their patients is powerful, even when regional dialects makes communication challenging. There is a universal tone of tough love that initially seems brusque but becomes more endearing the more we hear it.

Older patients are respectfully addressed as “Grandma,” “Grandpa,” “Auntie” and “Uncle,” told to stay strong and encouraged to keep in touch with their families via their omnipresent mobile phones. One hospital worker tells a grandma that she can’t be with her family but “we are your family now.”

With his documentary “76 Days,” Hao Wu offers a deeply personal look at what happened in Wuhan hospitals at the height of China’s COVID-19 crisis. He explains how he made the movie.

Memorable personalities surface even though we don’t always know their names — patients are usually referred to as No. 40 or No. 98. A cranky grandpa who spends the nights wandering the halls complaining and the days in bed crying is revealed to be suffering from dementia, a discovery that allows the staff to better care for him. An infant nicknamed “Little Penguin,” whose mother tested positive for the virus, charms the nurses with her appetite and sleep habits as her parents wait to be reunited with her. A head nurse named Yang Li is determined to return phones and death certificates to the families of patients who did not survive.

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For a film that opens in a rather grim environment, “76 Days” is ultimately (and surprisingly) uplifting as it moves through February and March to Wuhan’s reopening in April, thanks to the emotionally-driven vérité approach taken by directors Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and a third credited as “Anonymous” (the latter two are video reporters who shot the footage while Wu edited in the U.S.). Considering China’s lack of artistic freedom, it’s something of a miracle the film exists.

Like Gibney’s “Totally Under Control,” this is not the ultimate COVID-19 documentary, simply one of the first. We are likely to be watching films on this subject for years to come, but for it’s sheer in-the-moment rawness, “76 Days” is one that will stick in your consciousness for some time.

‘76 Days’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Available via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres


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