Film Review: Chinese Doctors《中国医生》Is Too Real Too Soon5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Chinese Doctors follows the story of frontline medical workers who fought against the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, Hubei, China.
Director: Andrew Lau
Cast: Zhang Hanyu, Yuan Quan, Zhu Yawen, Li Chen
Runtime: 129 minutes
Chinese Doctors opened at the top of the Chinese box office in July 2021, holding on to that title for two weeks after its release. The film is directed by Hong Kong’s veteran director/cinematographer Andrew Lau, who also directed the action thriller Infernal Affairs (2002 – 2003) and Young and Dangerous (1996 – 1998) film franchises.
Given a title that is unabashedly to the point and a film description that is boldly straightforward, there isn’t much mystique as to what audiences are about to witness walking into the theatre, nor much effort wasted trying to conceal the film’s reputation rehabilitative intent. Described as a homage to the front-line medical staff of Wuhan, who was the first in the world to treat the novel coronavirus outbreak in the city, the audience enters the theatre well aware of the narrative that is to come.
The film opens at what we know will be the epicentre of a massive outbreak — Wuhan, late December 2019. It’s the calm before the storm, and there’s a sense of foreboding as the audience knows exactly what awaits. The film wastes no time developing the lead-up that we’re all too familiar with, and within the first ten minutes, we’re thrown into the eye of the tornado. The film is set primarily in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, the Hubei hospital that saw many of the very first COVID-19 patients back in January 2020.
Performances from the ensemble cast are commendable across the board, with compelling acts coming especially from Chinese veteran actors Yuan Quan and Zhang Hanyu. Both play characters who nobly sacrifice their personal lives and relationships to join the fierce fight against the virus. Their internal turmoil is visible and painful to watch. The entire cast carries through the despair of trying to treat an unknown malady, and the frustration and anguish when treatment fails are indeed gut-wrenching.
Unfortunately, given the events of the previous year, I would suggest that Lau and Bona Films are facing an audience that is much more jaded than they already were 15 months ago, when the film began production as early as April 2020. It’s hard to be stirred by what we know is still a glamorised version of the seriously grim events that are very much alive in our recent memory. Audiences’ collective familiarity with the subject, coupled with generally unimaginative character arcs that the film chose to take with its leads, makes the film feel more like an extended documentary, or worse, a two-hour-long news report.
The most compelling sequences are ones like those in the hospital break room, where we see our heroes battered and bruised after a long fight, with the film only affording them the respite of chewing their food in silence or the occasional phone call from home. There’s also distressing scenes where limited resources, be it PPE, hospital beds, or even electricity, throw hundreds of lives in the balance. It’s gutting to watch, especially because we know it’s reality. This emotional buildup is, however, marred by the film’s haphazard progression.
Lau skims on character development in order to cover the events from as many angles as he can, but that backfires when the mostly one-dimensional ensemble cannot retain the audiences’ attention for that long of a film. While the breadth and diversity of the cast with mostly disparate storylines could have made for a very interesting Love Actually-esque plot structure, Chinese Doctors opts to liberally scatter mini climaxes throughout the film, leaving it messy and feeling out of sync with itself. Furthermore, every character has more or less the same primary arc, making for a very predictable watch that becomes draggy very quickly. The film is thus an endless crescendo that goes nowhere before it abruptly ceases towards the end just in time for a convenient happy ending.
All that being said, its soap-operatic representation of the fighters at the forefront against a raging virus does fall short in doing their own Angels in White justice. Oftentimes, the film feels sterile and edged on pandering. And while the cast’s noteworthy performances do remind us of the selflessness and dedication of all real-life front-liners, the feelings of awe and reverence are nothing new, and we certainly didn’t need this film to evoke them.
Perhaps it’s too soon for a film like Chinese Doctors, and the film would only get better in retrospect. But for now, after sitting through the grisly 129 minutes of this film, we’re left with a feeling very similar to the ones we have about the actual pandemic: when is this ever going to end?
Chinese Doctors is now in theatres islandwide.