76 Days Review

Forget anything in the genre-centric Midnight Madness slate: the documentary 76 Days is the horror film of TIFF 2020. Tracing the COVID-19 outbreak in a Wuhan medical facility for the duration of that city’s lockdown, it manages in a concise and remarkable way to illustrate not only the ravages of this new virus but how its effects continue to resonate no matter the political forces looking to downplay its risks.

This is not only one of the most unvarnished, most unsentimental looks at this crisis, it also provides a uniquely unfettered glimpse into Chinese life. From a Western perspective, much of it will feel completely alien, from the acquiescence of young parents to having their child stripped away for quarantine, to the general sense of both chaos and totalitarian order that is exhibited in equal measure.

The opening scene of haunts me weeks after I screened the film, following one of the health care workers confronting the loss of a family member while surrounded by her colleagues. We witness a sea of emotions, from wailing grief to the need to come to grips for the benefit of the group, a balance between individual suffering and the global requirements for moving forward. The entire circumstance is made all the more obscene by the blackly-comical outfits, the white-smocks of Personal Protection equipment that’s been personalized with doodles to denote otherwise anonymous workers.

There’s almost inhuman caring and patience on display, but there’s also moments where the façade cracks and we can feel the exhaustion of patient or healthcare worker alike. Each moment feels both tenuous and full of fear, as this novel virus causes unbearable suffering for those attached to breathing machines held in place by inflated latex gloves decorated in get-well messaging.

Directed by Chinese American journalist Hao Wu, Esquire magazine’s Weixi Chen, and an Anonymous collaborator, the film refuses to either bask in the misery or sugarcoat the situation. The result is a beautifully balanced look at not only the horror of the circumstances but also about how easily this onslaught of awful can become routine and predictable. The unvarnished, direct cinematic approach is naturally elevated by the life-or-death situation, but it’s not to be underappreciated the journalistic craft and cinematic sensibilities that these filmmakers have employed in their project.

For far more insidious reasons, this project has been referred to as history written with lightning, but this electric and powerful film seems to live up to that notion. In what feels like real time, we’re confronted with the highs and lows of human experience, and the end result is both shattering and hopeful in equal measure.

76 Days is a tiny glimpse at the early stages of a story that continues to shatter much of the world. We’ve become quite used to statistics of hospitalizations and the way that our treatments and promises of vaccines dominate discussion. Whatever the next year or two will bring, this film can stand as a unique, vital, must-see look into the earliest days of this deadly disease. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.