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“Emergency Room China” is the latest film from award winning Mainland Chinese director Zhou Hao, one of the most acclaimed and influential figures of the Modern Chinese Independent Documentary Movement. Following on from his recent “Cop Shop” films, which depict the trials and tribulations of officers at a chaotically busy train station during New Year, the film sees Zhou continuing his series of documentaries focusing on public spaces and institutions in China.
In shooting the film, Zhou and his crew spent 10 long months in a hospital emergency room and following ambulances day and night in Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China. Capturing a stream of accidents and incidents the film tells stories that range from the bizarre and absurd to the shocking and tragic, showing both the ways in which people sometimes fail to respect their own lives, and the necessity of having a more effective health care system. The camera focuses not only on patients, but on the doctors and hospital staff as well, listening to their aspirations of helping people and their frustrations at the many obstacles thrown in their paths, capturing the toll their harrowing work takes on their lives.
As “Emergency Room China” demonstrates, with accelerated urbanisation and industrialisation, conflicts between the backward Chinese health care and welfare system and economic development are growing more and more intense – although China has long been the second largest economy in the world, in many ways it can still be considered a developing country, something which the government often refuses to accept. The inspiration behind the film apparently comes from the writings of the famous Chinese philosopher Mengzi, who some 2000 years ago encouraged a utopia where everyone respects and treats the elderly as their grandparents and takes care of the young as their own children. In recent years, the Chinese government has advocated a great deal of propaganda espousing the values of a “harmonious society”, seemingly drawing upon the ideals of Mengzi’s utopia – something which as the film shows, is still some way off.
Zhou shoots with his usual observational style, though his camera here feels more active and involved than it perhaps did in the “Cop Shop” films, with scenes both inside the hospital and at the actual scenes of accidents. Though this makes for some very impressive visuals, things get pretty shocking at times, and the film unsurprisingly does contain some very bloody scenes, showing real injuries and deaths, and though its tone is too grounded to be called sombre, it’s certainly hard going at times and often very bleak. However, this certainly fits the subject matter and themes, and the film never comes across as being exploitative – in fact, quite the opposite, with Zhou’s approach also being passionately humanistic, arguing for a society where everyone lives with dignity and then dies with dignity, the film being dedicated to the ordinary Chinese people who allowed him to film them, whose stories help us to understand the society they live in.
“Emergency Room China” is a stunning and frequently shocking film, and is arguably Zhou Hao’s best and most accomplished film for several years. Whether taken as a commentary on modern China and the effects of its economic development, or simply as a slice of life documentary about events in a hospital ER, it makes for gripping viewing throughout, and stays long in the memory after the credits have rolled.
Emergency Room China has its World Premiere at the 2013 Chinese Visual Festival, on Friday 24th May at 18:30. For more info and tickets visit the CVF website.