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Chinese Doctors (2021)

From Andrew Lau, co-director and co-cinematographer of “Infernal Affairs,” “Chinese Doctors” is perhaps a prime example of a respected filmmaker directing with one hand tied behind his back.

The story opens on Dec. 30, 2019, with deadly cases of pneumonia reported around Wuhan, China. Right off the bat, Mr. Lau is employing rapid successions of film speed changes often seen in the introductory segments of reality TV shows. We’re quickly introduced to Director Zhang (Zhang Hanyu), head of a local hospital, as some of his staff quit en masse amid traffic closures and emptied store shelves. It’s the perfect overture for a “Contagion,” “Outbreak” or zombie movie, but that is not what follows.

“Chinese Doctors” often feels like TV, in that any fire that erupts is put out almost instantaneously. When the hospital exhausts all of its personal protective equipment supplies, a call is promptly placed to a neighboring medical facility. Then the film immediately cuts to people carrying the P.P.E. surplus into Zhang’s institution.

Although the movie persistently hammers on the fact that it’s utter chaos both inside and outside the medical center, people somehow always find time for meetings. This is when it truly bares resemblance to propaganda. It’s as if the Chinese Communist Party absolutely loves its assemblies and a pandemic isn’t going to get in the way. Essential workers drop everything to make time for such gatherings, as if they can call time out while battling the deadly virus. The sense of urgency and chaos magically vanishes whenever everyone is called into one of these convocations.

Yes, medical workers are certainly heroes. “Chinese Doctors” is so much an ensemble piece that you don’t get a true sense of the personal toll the virus has taken. There is little to no exposition to speak of. One also gets the sense that the film is sometimes holding back on the magnitude of the pandemic for fear of censorship. It’s possible we’re just desensitized after Covid’s wrath has dominated headlines for more than a year and a half. But if the end credit documentary footage is any indication, it seems as if screenwriter Yu Yonggan simply has constructed a narrative from Chinese state media newscasts. The various characters in the film eventually get to celebrate their hard-earned victory, while the rest of us continue to grapple with the Delta variant.


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