The Chinese documentary, "This Is Life," directed by Chen Weijun, opens with an instrumental "Ave Maria" playing over the sound of crying newborn babies while a camera floats angelically above the fray of a hospital floor. It's the single moment of respite in the film until the end, where the film closes with a tender song about motherhood over soaring aerial cityscapes.
What comes in between isn't so gentle. It's a harrowing journey into the bowels of a large urban hospital where high-risk pregnancies and births are tackled with a jarring forthrightness by the doctors.
Weijun and his filmmaking team were granted intimate access to the hospital, and the footage they capture obscures none of the hard, messy truths about childbirth. For Western audiences, there may be something a bit shocking about the brutally honest bedside manner of the doctors, as well as their demands for payment up front. One rural farmer enlists his brother to collect funds so that the hospital will schedule a surgery to save his wife and their premature twins.
With a fly-on-the-wall observational approach, the film's unobtrusive style and loose structure following four different women's experiences can feel overwhelming. But what emerges is a portrait of doctors and staff who work hard to do the right thing for their patients and the babies, who have no voice. It is life, fought for and forged in the most difficult of circumstances.
'This Is Life'
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center