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A Doc About Wuhan's Lockdown Was 'Too Real' For My Wuhan-Born Dad. I'm Glad I Watched

Several medical workers in hazmat suits sprint across the hallway. A heart-wrenching wail pierces the air — "Baba!" — from a woman watching as her father's lifeless body is wheeled away. The opening scene of 76 Days, a new documentary about the resilience of front-line workers and patients in the 76 days of Wuhan, China's lockdown, directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and a journalist credited as "Anonymous," throws the viewer right into the fray of body bags and ventilators, mirroring the helplessness and frenzy at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

My dad and I start watching in silence, with only the occasional popping sound of microwave popcorn breaking the tension. Less than five minutes in, my dad shoots up from the couch and walks away, muttering, "It's too real. ... I can't do it."

I had planned to watch this film with my dad, who had lived in Wuhan until he was 28, to get his perspective on top of my own. I was still a toddler when we left, and though I've visited several times since, I'll never know our hometown as he does. Although this film was a full 180 from our usual Friday night dramedies, I figured the nightmare in Wuhan was over, right? None of our family members in Wuhan caught COVID-19, and daily life there was back to normal, unlike our reality in the United States.

But perhaps he knew someone in Wuhan who wasn't as lucky? Or did he see himself as the father who died while I, his daughter, screamed after him? He's not one to open up, so I grab the popcorn and a box of tissues and continue the documentary alone.

The more I watch, the more I start to understand his discomfort. An ambulance races across an eerily deserted Yangtze River bridge. The same bridge my family weaved through in terrible traffic to see the Mid-Autumn Festival light show just a year ago. The elderly locals, with their strong Wuhanese dialects, struggle to get their nurses, some of whom came from other provinces, to understand them.

"He said his teeth are too weak for solid foods!" I want to shout at the screen.

It is impossible not to project my family onto the patients' faces.

An elderly couple, separated into different rooms, ask a nurse to help them use their phones to check in on each other. They're like Nainai, my maternal grandma, who still can't center her face after countless video chats during quarantine.

An amusing old fisherman with dementia tires out the workers with his never-ending attempts to escape, claiming he's perfectly fine. Stubborn and quick tongued, he spits lighthearted jabs every time his plans are foiled, being coaxed back into his room only with promises that he'll see his family once he's healthy. He'd be best friends with Popo,* my paternal grandma, who grew up in the countryside wrestling oxen. If she had accidentally chopped off her hand, she'd brush it off as a flesh wound, eager to make it home by dinnertime for her grandkids.

Without any markers of date and time, the documentary relies on the bonds among the patients, their families and their caretakers to move the story forward. At one point, the old fisherman, overwhelmed by pain and uncertainty, cries for a quick death. The twinkle in his eye is replaced by a shroud of fear.

The thought of seeing his family again grounds him in hope. A health worker, who had previously sat with him, explains, "If you don't get better, you'll infect your two adorable grandkids." The old man scoffs, "Two? I have three grandkids!" The worker beams, "Then even more the bliss!"

This simple interaction is enough to rekindle his will to recover. Before long, his day of discharge arrives as an entire room of workers sends him off in cheers. When asked what's the first thing he's looking forward to doing back home, he says without hesitation, "To hold my great-grandson!"

The banter between the old man and his caretaker is one of countless small acts of empathy throughout the film. A worker blows up medical gloves like a balloon and draws smiley faces and "get well soon" messages before placing them on patients' beds to surprise them when they wake up. Another soaks mantou (steamed bread) in hot water and spoon-feeds a patient whose lungs have deteriorated so much that he struggles to chew without losing his breath.

The health workers do everything they can to rally each other too. Confined within the hospital walls, they're each other's family. One artistic worker thrills his colleagues with beautiful drawings of cherry blossoms on their hazmat suits. Others decorate their gowns with foods they miss eating, like Zhou Hei Ya (a popular Wuhan-originated braised-duck chain) or di guo ji (clay pot chicken) and promise to treat each other when the pandemic ends.

While millions of people tried to escape from Wuhan before the lockdown started, many health workers drove hundreds of miles into the virus hotbed to heed a moral call of duty. As one precisely put it, "It's a hero's dream."

76 Days is a raw and harrowing tribute to these heroes and patients of Wuhan who never backed down. Some get happy endings, like the old fisherman, while others aren't as lucky.

The fates of most were left unsaid by the time the credits rolled, as if a metaphor for the state of the world today. Some places, like Wuhan, have gotten their happy endings. But for much of the world, including the U.S., where I live today, the story is still unfolding. These scenes shot in February are the realities for many hospitals today. 76 Days isn't just a recount of Wuhan's COVID-19 situation but a wake-up call for those of us in countries that are still fighting.

The sounds from the last scene are forever imprinted on my brain. I shed a few tears through the film — when a young couple reunites with their newborn or when a daughter picks up her deceased mom's jade bracelet. But in the final seconds, when the bustling city of 11 million froze in place with sirens wailing through the chilling air to honor those lost, my eyes couldn't hold back the downpour. I understood then why my dad had to leave five minutes in. Even if COVID-19 hadn't taken any of our family members, everyone in this battle-worn city was family. We all bear the pain together.

76 Days is currently screening through virtual cinema; the public can purchase tickets at https://www.76daysfilm.com/watch.

Laura Gao is an artist and writer known for her viral comic The Wuhan I Know. You can explore more of her work and upcoming graphic novel at www.lauragao.com.

*Author's note: Though in Mandarin, "Nainai" is paternal grandma and "Popo" is maternal grandma, the author's family uses them reversely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Gao