76 Days (Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous, 2020)

“Don’t worry, so many of us are here for you” a nurse tries to reassure a pregnant woman understandably anxious in being told that her husband cannot be in the room with her while she undergoes an emergency C-section in 76 Days, an observational documentary shot almost entirely within a series of hospitals during the Wuhan lockdown. Co-directed by New York-based director Wu Hao and two on the ground reporters, Chen Weixi and another who has elected to be credited anonymously, 76 Days is testimony to the heroism of the frontline medical personnel who found themselves dealing with a new and mysterious illness, but also a record of a moment as it happened through the eyes of those who were there. 

As such, it opens in chaos with a hospital overrun by those who desperately need help and have nowhere else to turn. “Let’s not panic, OK?” the head nurse adds to the end of her briefing as the team prepare for still more patients, many of them waiting in a small room complaining of the cold. Meanwhile, another healthcare worker in a full hazmat suit breaks down in tears not allowed to attend her own dying father while her colleagues try to offer comfort at the same time as encouraging her to pull herself together because they need her on the ward. She can only watch as he’s taken out of the room in an orange bodybag, two of her colleagues continue to take hold of her at the armpits, less for solidarity it seems than to keep her safe while while she follows the gurney down towards the van which will take his body away. 

Meanwhile, the doctors attempt to help those who’ve come in looking for treatment including one confused older gentleman who keeps insisting he’s not really ill and wants to go home. Making repeated attempts to escape which might be comical if it were not for the gravity of the situation, the old man is obviously frightened and alone alternating between crying on his bed and wandering around in search of company. Later his son rings him to give him a telling off for causing the doctors so much trouble, reminding him that he’s been a Party Member for decades and ought to be acting with a little more dignity while the doctors do their best to be patient with both men, especially when the son later expresses reluctance to have him back in case he’s not really “cured” (the old man will be one of last to leave the hospital). The old man’s anxiety raises another issue in that he’s used to speaking in dialect and so there is an obvious difficulty in communication between some of the patients, particularly those among the older generation, and the hospital staff some of whom are secondments from Shanghai rather than from the local area. Other patients, meanwhile have been looking up their symptoms on the internet which is causing them additional anxiety and headaches for their doctors who then have to re-explain all their treatment decisions. 

We also realise that certain procedures cannot be delayed just because there is so much to do leaving personnel tied up with bureaucracy, often needing to ring grieving relatives to ask them for a copy of their loved ones’ documentation so they can issue a death certificate. Some of the nurses also make a point of rescuing the personal affects of those who’ve died such as bracelets and other items of jewellery so they can be disinfected and returned to family members along with more practical items such as mobile phones and ID cards. At the height of the crisis, there is a large box filled with phones belonging to those who have already passed away some of which are still ringing. 

Keeping in touch becomes a secondary problem as couples come in and are shuffled into separate wards, an old woman making regular requests for updates on her husband and a compassionate nurse going so far as to show her his dinner so she can see that he’s eating. Meanwhile the woman who underwent the C-section is isolating away from her baby, she and her husband later enduring another anxious wait towards the end of the lockdown until they’re told that it’s safe for their little girl come home with them. There are no title cards or explanatory text, like everyone else we have no idea where we are or when this will end save for a few brief glances of the daily roster as we notice that admissions seem to be decreasing, people are beginning to go home, and on the momentary glimpses of the outside traffic seems to be increasing on the streets.  

Yet even when it’s over it’s not really over. A nurse has to sit and go through that box of phones ringing relatives again, some of whom evidently had not been made aware their loved one had died, to ask them what to do with the affects. The bracelet of one old woman is dutifully returned to her daughter who cannot help crying as she receives it, but like everyone else goes out of her way to thank the doctors for doing all they could while the nurse profusely apologies that they weren’t able to save her. A valuable historical document, 76 Days is also strangely imbued with a kind of hope in the selfless dedication of the doctors and medical staff who daily risked their own lives to save those they could, while proving that this will someday if not exactly end then at least stabilise. 


76 Days streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Wu Hao, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

People's Republic of Desire PosterCan you outsource a dream? According to Wu Hao’s People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Yùwàng gòngguó), many in modern China have resigned themselves to doing just that. Feeling lonely, disconnected, hopeless, they turn to people just like them who’ve been luckier and have not yet decided to give up the fight. Video streaming service YY acts like the future’s version of pirate radio, lining up a selection “personalities” male and female offering pretty much anything from stand up comedy and political diatribes to off key singing and a window into someone else’s every day life from breakfast to dinner. Of course, it all comes at a price – one which YY gleefully takes a 60% cut of, but there are hidden costs too – to a society, to the deluded fans, and even to the aspiring stars themselves forced into various debasing acts in the knowledge that their time in the spotlight will soon come to an end.

Wu follows two very different YY stars – 21-year-old former nurse Shen Man, and Big Li – a former migrant worker whose rough voice and man’s man attitudes have endeared him to a host of other “diaosi” fans. “Diaosi”, once an unpleasant slur meaning “loser” and most often applied to those stuck in the lower orders of China’s rapidly increasing social equality gap, has been reclaimed by those who self identify with its sense of ironic hopelessness. As Shen Man explains, YY works as a kind of pyramid system in which millions of dreaming diaosi throw money they don’t really have at online stars in the hope of connection while Tuhao – the nouveau riche looking for new ways to splash the cash, act as patrons deciding the direction of the service.

What many diaosi forget to factor in is that in reality the entire service is run by agents and promoters who push their various stars to steal “votes” from their online fans. YY is not a public service platform, but a vast money making machine which sucks in cash from every conceivable angle. As cynical patron Songge points out, those seeking fame on YY cannot expect to make any money. In order to win the site’s popularity contest, they need to get an agent and their agent will need to spend a vast amount of money to promote them which the star will then need to make back.

Shen Man, on one level naive, is perfectly aware of the way the system works. She knows she needs to keep her fans happy or they’ll leave. Like Big Li she’s a poor girl made good, a figure her female fans can look up to as someone just like them that’s been able to escape the world of diaosi drudgery. Her male fans, by contrast, are probably looking for something different. Some of them like the idea of her ordinariness, that she comes from the same place they do and is therefore attainable while also being unattainable thanks to her quickly acquired wealth which allows her to live the life of a modern princess. There is however a cost. In order to hook more fans the youthful 21-year-old has already spent a lot of money on extensive plastic surgery (perhaps veering dangerously close to destroying her “natural charm” selling point), and is expected to play nice with her sometimes insulting clientele. One patron, chatting idly on the phone, tries to throw money at her in return for sex whilst simultaneously insisting that she’s not like the other YY girls who will do anything for money. Shen Man points out that she has money already and is not that sort of girl while her patron continues along the same line of argument insisting that all you need to do get a girl is flash the cash.

Big Li, by contrast, is much less cynical. He recognises that he’s become a kind of leader for his diaosi brothers and is eager not to let his fans down. Married to YY talent manager Dabao and with a young son to take care of, Big Li is originally grateful for his rock star life, but the pressure begins to get to him and he longs for the simple days of the village filled with the warmth of family and friends rather than the lonely false connection of YY’s race to fame mentality. Big Li genuinely cares, but this is his downfall. He wants the freedom that YY promises and refuses to play the game, but the game continues to play him.

Adoration quickly to hate. Shen Man finds herself out in the cold when she is publicly slut shamed, accused of taking money from fans in return for sexual favours, earning the nickname of “300 Man” as a woman who can be brought so cheaply she has no value at all. The constant double standard – that she must be beautiful and desirable, yet pure and chaste, has something to say about the nature of China’s conservative social values even in a modernising age. Once your reputation has gone it cannot be rebuilt and even the loyalist fans will find themselves moving on. Big Li might not have to put up with the same kind of pressures as Shen Man, but is personally hurt when fans call him “scammer” because of his constant failures to take home the big prize.

So what of the fans themselves? There are those who’ve made vast amounts money thanks to China’s rapidly modernising economy and don’t know what to do with it other than show off by giving it away. They too are trying to buy connection through becoming patrons, “owning” someone less fortunate and taking pleasure in dictating their lives. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the scale, the diaosi have all but given up on their own dreams and so “enjoy” investing money to “support” the dreams of those just like them out of a sense of frustrated solidarity.

The picture Wu paints of modern China is one of a world spiralling out of control in which intense loneliness and alienation have corrupted the nature of social connection. Money rules all. Wealth is all that matters and in the crowded online world, if you want to be noticed you’ll have to pay. Interactions are bought and paid for with petty, entirely virtual trinkets, while in the offline world all there is is work and sleep and cheap fast food. Only the platform is the winner, as one unlucky hopeful puts it. The sad truth is that everyone knows it’s a losing game and has resigned themselves to conceding defeat in a society already leaving them behind.


People’s Republic of Desire was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)