Modern-day China through Chinese eyes: reviews from Toronto International Film Festival
An ambulance speeds through the streets of Wuhan, China, in this scene from '76 Days'. | Courtesy of TIFF

U.S. relations with China are possibly at an all-time low, although Washington has opposed the government since the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Today, both U.S. capitalist parties and even a significant section of the Left, are demonizing a country and its people that we know little about, reinforcing the anti-Communist driving force of the American empire. The Western mainstream media are falling in lockstep with the war hawks, setting the stage for a possible military confrontation—which could well render an ultimate disaster for the entire planet.

The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival screened a couple of films that shone some light on the people and history of China. 76 Days is an incredible firsthand account of the early days of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, where panic and chaos initiated a total lockdown that lasted for 76 days. It was filmed up-close, in the hospitals, on the streets, and in the homes of those who were affected by the deadly disease. It’s an observational film with long takes allowing for amazing access to the actions and emotions of frontline workers risking their lives to save other human beings.

Compassion and commitment have rarely been captured on film as in this tightly edited string of indelible human stories that were at the center of this pandemic—from a woman begging in vain to bid a final farewell to her father, a grandpa with dementia searching for his way home, a couple anxious to meet their newborn, to a nurse determined to return personal items to families of the deceased. These raw, intimate stories bear witness to the death and rebirth of a city under a 76-day lockdown, and to the human resilience that persists in times of profound tragedy.

A scene from ‘The Best is Yet to Come,’ a film set in the aftermath of China’s 2003 battle against SARS. | Courtesy of TIFF

Chinese-American filmmaker Hao Wu edited footage from two mainland Chinese filmmakers who risked their lives capturing the realities of the dangerous pandemic. What was also demonstrated in the film was how the resourcefulness and organization of the socialist society quickly led to the development of one of the most successful recoveries on record. On April 4, sirens were wailing for the dead, and on April 8 the lockdown was released after 76 days. The sense of relief floods the screen.

Director/editor Hao Wu originally intended to research the early coverups and wrongdoings of the Chinese government that led to a total lockdown of a major city. But after reading books on previous pandemics, the explosion of cases in the U.S. and the world, and upon personally experiencing anti-Asian sentiment here at home, he came to the realization that “a pandemic would bring the worst out of us. It always did and it always will, because fear and human short-sightedness blind us.” He remarked that our president’s attempt to blame China for the virus is “distasteful and counterproductive.”

The director expanded, “My own feeling towards the pandemic has evolved from a starting point of fear, anger and wanting to assign blame, to one seeking to understand the universal human conditions in times of crisis. As much as I have been horrified by the human toll of this pandemic and the failures of different societies to mount a cohesive and effective defense, I have also been encouraged by the ample evidence of human tenacity and kindness.”

The Best Is Yet to Come is a dramatic true-life story by Jing Wang, about an earlier Chinese epidemic, the Hepatitis B crisis that took place in 2003 in Beijing. It’s centered around a young journalism student who moves to the big city hoping to make his mark in the newspaper business. Han Dong applies for a reporter job although he never went past junior high school. He, fortunately, wins recognition with an article exposing a mining disaster in the countryside and gets hired by a prominent newspaper in Beijing. In his new position, he produced his most influential article that revealed the criminal act of forging Hepatitis B reports by switching clean blood tests with those who are actually carrying the disease. Patients with the disease were ostracized from society, were refused work, and kept away from society. Dong began to see the problem as discrimination against Hepatitis B patients and the government’s failure to address this human aspect.

Director Wang says, “Han Dong’s story is a footnote in an era of endless possibilities. It was a time where society was still finding its footing. China has developed so fast that even decade-old archives are alienating. I chose to focus my lens on human faces. Their yearning, hesitancy, agony, and dignity stand out the most to me in an era’s collective memory.”

For those readers interested in learning more about Chinese history from the Chinese perspective, there are several films on YouTube that can provide information for a more balanced view.

Chen Feiyu (left) and Liu Haoran in a still from My People, My Country. | Courtesy of TIFF

When a film is popular in China, that means hundreds of millions of people see it. All of their big hits are watched by far more people than films from the West, despite the cultural hegemony of the U.S.

The Founding of the Peoples Republic in 1949 was a film constructed to celebrate the country’s 60th anniversary. Last year, they celebrated their 70th anniversary with a blockbuster film, My People, My Country, enjoyed by most Chinese people around the world. (Both have English subtitles.)

76 Days will have its U.S. debut at DOC NYC, where you can watch it at their fabulous online film festival, featuring dozens of world-class documentaries.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.