Emergency Room China (Ji Chen): Film Review

Emergency Room China Still H
A gritty, low-budget documentary offering yet another nuanced look at how civil servants -- well-meaning medical staff this time -- operate amidst red tape and rough and tumble members of the Chinese public.

Photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Zhou Hao chronicles lives in an ER with his latest stab at documenting the machinations of public institutions in China.

More than a decade after completing his directorial debut Housie Township, Zhou Hao has established himself as one of mainland China's most important documentary makers with films that survey the different aspects of how the state works, and also how those working for the state navigate (and exploit) a system addled with fundamental flaws.

Starting in 2010 with The Transition Period (which tracks the daily life of a municipal-level party cadre -- complete with sequences about dodgy dealings and all -- and then in 2011 and 2012 with the Cop Shop diptych (which explore how police officers perform their duties with a very flexible approach to citizens' rights), Zhou is seemingly working his way down the power chain. With Emergency Room China -- which just won the Best Feature award at Hong Kong's annual Chinese Documentary Festival on Saturday -- he has reached the frontline of social schisms with a look at life among doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and ever-returning patients at a hospital in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou.

With its revealing observations about the circumstances in which the ER medics operate, Zhou's film can be read as a microcosmic view of the problems in mainland China in general: while red tape bounds hospital staff from doing their best to meet their patients' needs, spiraling social problems add to their woes as they deal with contraband-liquor-related fatalities, a drug addict falling to his death in the presence of undercover cops, people ringing hotlines for help and then refusing to be transported to the hospital, and phony patients (or hypochondriacs?) who hang around the ER every day, requesting medication for imaginary illnesses and talking about pills as if they are bread and butter.

Largely devoid of voiceovers or expositional text providing a context in which these real-life characters go about their business -- and hospitals are indeed businesses, given how they are self-financed to the extent that, for example, ambulance drivers and medics earn a living directly from fees paid by patients using their services  -- Emergency Room China is the gritty observational-style mainland Chinese documentary that is expected to travel widely to festivals. Having first premiered at the Chinese Visual Festival in London in May before returning to Asia with two screenings in Hong Kong last week, the film could well follow The Transition Period (which was picked up by dGenerate Films) to odd bookings in documentary programs in the U.S.

It's a challenging film, still, both in terms of engaging with the documentation of the mundane and its potentially disturbing imagery of the dying and the dead. But Zhou's heart as a filmmaker is very much throbbing on his sleeve, a spirit brought to life with the help of Peng Xin's deft editing of the raw material. The film's minor aesthetic pitfalls -- debate could ensue about how Zhou's presence might have dictated some confessional chit-chats, and hindered the development of other threads -- are easily overshadowed by that enthusiasm.

Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong
Production Companies: 21stCentury Media, Shanghai Media Group
Director: Zhou Hao
Producers: Shen Hao, Gan Chao
Cinematographers: Qiu Haorun, Zhou Hao
Editor: Peng Xin
In Mandarin and Cantonese
No ratings, 89 minutes