Though the gears of escapist holiday cinema are shifting into full-throttle mode at present, despite our semi-locked-down society, this weekend’s most interesting new arrivals are more substantial, not to mention international. They include documentaries on topics from COVID to childcare, plus an immigration drama and a retrospective for one of the great filmmakers of the 1990s.
Hot on the heels of Totally Under Control, which depicted the Trump administration’s crucial early bungling of may become the most lethal pandemic in US history, comes this very different documentary about the response in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 apparently originated. 76 Days sidesteps all politics, finger-pointing, speculation (including what generated the virus), external commentary, and talking heads. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on the doctors, nurses, and patients in several medical facilities after the city of 11 million was “locked down” on January 23.
We’re plunged right into high crisis, as institutional staff in full hazmat suits must physically restrain a colleague from saying goodbye to her dying father, one of what seems a nonstop series of emergencies here. In the “contamination zone,” family members are kept isolated from one another even on the same ward; a woman who tests positive gets released from care long before the daughter she gives birth to; elderly people die, their few belongings sheepishly handed back to over relatives. Medical personnel are constantly fighting exhaustion.
Yet the primary imprint here is of dedication, scrupulousness, empathy, and even humor under extreme pressure. Acquiescence to recommended procedure for the greater good is such a given that the exceptions play out as comedy relief: A running gag of sorts is one possibly-senile old gent who’s forever trying to leave the ward. There’s also a bizarre moment when another distraught elder is chastised on the phone by his son … who says his emotions disgrace the Communist Party. Eventually people start recovering, the worst appears over, and we glimpse everyday life outside also start to get back to something like “normal.” The rigor of the lockdown was such that it could be lifted on April 4.
Of course it’s a very complicated business to compare the US and mainland China on any matter. But 76 Days, a US-produced feature made by Chinese-American filmmaker Hao Wu in collaboration with two on-site local directors (one of whom is credited anonymously), does amply illustrate the effect of widespread cooperation in a major health emergency—and by implication shows how the lack thereof is keeping us months behind Wuhan’s curve. 76 Days is playing Roxie Virtual Cinema, Rafael@Home, and other virtual cinemas.
Through the Night
A less conspicuous emergency of sorts lies behind Loira Limbal’s documentary (also at the Roxie) about a 24-hour daycare center operated out of Deloris and Patrick Hogan’s home in New Rochelle, NY. Dee’s Tots Childcare is part preschool, part babysit, part safe haven for older kids who don’t have anywhere else to be, or that they want to be. It’s a pleasantly semi-chaotic environment whose proprietors “Nunu” and “Pop Pop” are, like the Wuhan health workers, perpetually fatigued. She worries that her own offspring “have had to share me with other children” since they were toddlers, and sometimes get the short end of the deal.
It’s the kind of real-life story that’s inspirational even as you thank your lucky stars you’re not in the Hogans’ place. But at least they do get to spend time with their (as well as others’) kids: Dee’s exists precisely because their working-class clients don’t have that option, being forced to hustle multiple jobs for low wages and no benefits. In our trickle-up economy, the middle-class are getting pushed down, and safety nets only seem to exist for a shrinking, privileged minority.
Through the Night is heartwarming (as well as a bit harrowing, when a medical crisis strikes), but without getting too heavy-handed about it, it illustrates so much that is wrong in US society today. “This is the way this world is set up at this point,” Dee sighs. Still, that reality is inexcusable: In the richest nation on Earth, fully (indeed, over-) employed low-end workers are kept so economically disadvantaged that they don’t have time to parent their own children.
Less of a downer, though its protagonists inhabit the same socioeconomic strata, is Ekwa Msangi’s impressive first narrative feature, available today on digital and VOD platforms. Married couple Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine from series The Chi and Treme) and Esther (Zainab Jah) were split up by Angola’s civil war 17 years ago. She wound up fleeing to Tanzania with their newborn daughter, while he landed in NYC, saving money as a cabbie for the day they’d join him. Now the family has finally reunited, but they are essentially strangers to one another. Teenaged Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) is wary of the father she can’t help feeling abandoned her, while Walter is somewhat taken aback to discover his wife has become a religious fanatic.
Gracefully acted and crafted, Farewell Amor incorporates some familiar elements without surrendering to cliche, including the way that all three protagonists are variously liberated from their constraints by dance (despite pious Esther’s Footloose-type objections). The cultural disconnects they feel—Sylvia wading into the alien terrain of an American urban high school, Walter forced to forsake a local love for a spouse he no longer understands—are painted in subtle hues, sans melodrama. Much of the latterday debate around immigration views US residency as a gift few “deserve,” but Msangi’s film understands the pain of what emigres must leave behind.
Wong Kar-wai Retrospective
Though Hong Kong cinema was already in the middle of a major international vogue by 1990, the stylish action films and historical dramas that dominated still provided little preparation for the advent of Wong Kar-wai. Even his own stabs at gangster drama (1988’s As Tears Go By) and martial arts costumer (1994’s Ashes of Time) were practically genre abstractions, atmospheric mood pieces with a strikingly original aesthetic.
He really broke through with the subsequent narrative experiments of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and unhappy gay romance Happy Together, in which his collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle proved perhaps the most singular and innovative such pairing since Bertolucci and Storaro. Despite their critical acclaim, these were films too “difficult” for great popular success, something achieved at last by Wong’s relatively straightforward (if highly stylized) period love story In the Mood for Love.
That film came out 20 years ago. Since then, Wong has only made three additional features, and it can be argued that none of them are in the same league as his earlier work. He’s seemed to recede into deliberate mystery, like one of his screen characters—seldom seen, hiding behind sunglasses when he is, occasionally rousing himself to the effort of a perfume advertisement. Oh well: We’ll always have the 1990s. His features up through Mood for Love are being streamed by BAMPFA and the Roxie starting today, in new 4K restorations that should be gorgeous. How could they be otherwise?
The one inclusion that admirers may well not have seen previously (at least in this form) is The Hand, Wong’s contribution to the otherwise indifferently received 2004 omnibus feature Eros. This exquisitely spare story of tailor (Chang Chen) who remains loyal to a courtesan client (Gong Li) as her fortunes sink may be the director’s last great film. The director’s cut being shown is, at nearly an hour, considerably longer than the original theatrical version, yet not a moment seems superfluous.
Sing Me a Song
Another new documentary at the Roxie, Thomas Balmes’ film is actually a sequel to his 2013 Happiness, in which the last remote Himalayan village in the last nation (Bhutan) to get “connected” braced itself for the promised wonders of TV and internet reception. This momentous change was seen through the eyes of Peyangki, an 8-year-old boy growing up in a monastery. He’s eager for modernity to arrive, but will he come to share our regret at tranquility lost?
Ten years later, Balmes finds Peyangki still boyish yet nearly a man, his daily devotional routine unchanged—yet he and his fellow young devotees are now constantly sneaking looks at their cellphones, pining for a shiny consumerist world they know only from its advertising. Unsurprisingly, he’s having trouble focusing on his studies, or anything else. A particular distraction is his “relationship” with Ugyen, a young woman living in capital city Thimphu, whom he meets on social network WeChat.
With virtually no women in his orbit beyond occasionally visiting family members, naturally our crimson-robed hero falls madly in love. But Balmes’ camera knows what Peyangki doesn’t: That Ugyen already has a child, is planning to leave the country for work (two things she neglects to tell him), and in fact seems simply to be amusing herself with this long-distance yokel’s attentions. Needless to say, he’s in for a rude awakening.
Sing Me a Song at times reminds one of hoary melodramas in which the country bumpkin is ruined by a slick city siren, something already cornball when F.W. Murnau made silent classic Sunrise nearly a century ago. There are times here when it seems questionable just how much the participants are performing for Balmes, particularly where jaded, self-conscious Ugyen is concerned. But the beautifully-shot film has an undeniable basic integrity nonetheless. A perfect sucker even as he acknowledges he’s “too far from Buddha now” to regain the simple life, Peyangki is 21st-century humanity in a nutshell: Technology has brought him the kind of progress that stirs desire but keeps fulfillment forever at a dangling-carrot distance.