Something that often gets forgotten in the midst of the pandemic is that people continued to suffer from other illnesses and ailments some they may have been ultimately unable to receive treatment for. Wei Dan’s sometimes harrowing documentary The Ark (方舟, fāngzhōu) revolves around an elderly woman, Xihua, who is hospitalised with a wasting disease in spring 2020 just as the pandemic takes hold and is cared for largely by her children and grandchildren as they try to figure out what’s best for her while coming to terms with the idea that their mother and grandmother may not be able to overcome this final illness.
Shot in a dispassionate black and white and a claustrophobic 1:1 frame, Wei captures Xihua’s obvious sense of confusion and distress. A brain haemorrhage some years previously apparently left her unable to speak meaning that she is unable to communicate her pain to her caregivers while her family try to explain to the medical staff what her condition is showing them her legs almost entirely wasted away. While the family do their best to care for her themselves, patiently emptying her bedpan and analysing its contents, they also express suspicion and frustration with the medical establishment repeatedly stating that they worry their mother is not getting proper care because the doctors are after bribes all the time with other patients bringing in expensive gifts to curry favour.
Meanwhile, money in particular begins to press on the mind of Xihua’s oldest son who is obviously in a degree of mental distress unable to bear the thought that his mother might die because he cannot get the money together to pay for her treatment while simultaneously worrying that maybe all he’s doing is selfishly prolonging her suffering. When it’s suggested that an operation may alleviate Xihua’s symptoms, he finds himself ringing people he hasn’t spoken to in years most of them perhaps understandably sympathetic but unwilling or unable to help. The directness of this approach places an additional strain on his marriage as his wife feels embarrassed to see him begging around for money and thereby exposing the fact they don’t have any. Meanwhile she also worries about the financial stability of their own family, at one point snapping at him that they should pull the kids out of school and tell them their futures are ruined. In a heated moment, she even mentions leaving him reopening old wounds in complaining that she feels as if nothing she does is ever good enough and her husband is no good to her.
When Xihua passes away after having had an operation to remove a sizeable gallstone that had been causing an obstruction in her bowel, the sense of discord only increases as it becomes apparent that some members of the family, which is largely Christian, are extremely religious and offended by the idea of any kind of traditional rites being performed believing it would upset God. Briefly expanding to 16:9, Wei cuts away from the heated arguments to find Xihua’s grieving son weeping over the body feeling as if all his efforts were in vain while trying to comfort himself that at least she is no longer suffering.
The family’s distress runs parallel with the expansion of the pandemic though the hospital itself seems to be running more or less as normal save for the odd man in a hazmat suit disinfecting the waiting room even as the family describe a quarantine centre on the television in Xihua’s room as an “ark”. Compounding the worries of Xihua’s son, he’s about to lose his job while one of the grandchildren also complains that his clothing business is struggling and he’s thinking about opening a dry cleaner’s instead. Someone unironically advises him to think about investing in elder care which he suggests is about to become a growth industry thanks to China’s ageing population and the adverse effects of the One Child Policy which has left a generation unable to care for all their elderly relatives, not to mention their own children, at once. Though quietly harrowing, Wei’s film nevertheless finds a degree of serenity in its final stretches as the children return to their family home and its myriad memories throwing this private tragedy in stark relief amid so many other losses in age of fear and suffering.
The Ark streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (English subtitles)