Short Film Reviews: National Doctor's Day
In appreciation of all that doctors have done during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, let's review a few medically-themed short films.
While COVID-19 has ravaged the world and dragged plenty of businesses into a standstill, the medical world has been busier than ever. The workload was no doubt nightmarish, between the virus's destructive spread and all the misinformation that arose from COVID-19 becoming a centerpiece of the political mayhem that marked this past election. But as of this writing, it seems that an end to the pandemic may finally be in sight, and it's all thanks to the hard-working medical professionals out there who refused to let COVID stop them from helping those in need. So with this year's National Doctor's Day coming at a time when doctors have done so much to combat a devastating disease, here's a review list of 6 short films focusing on a doctor and/or the world of medicine:
As the COVID-19 epidemic began to take effect, it brought with it a disgusting surge of racism against Asian and Chinese communities. With so many ignorant people dubbing COVID-19 "The China Virus" and blaming whole peoples for the disease, it's ironic that Li Shan (a film that was released two years before the pandemic began) would follow a Chinese doctor working to stop a viral outbreak. Set in 2003 China, Guangzhou doctor Li Shan (Zhan Wang) takes notice of a strange and deadly disease plaguing his hospital. Realizing this isn't a normal flu and that the public is being misled, Li Shan fights to bring the truth to light and find a way to treat the disease.
While inspired by the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak that emerged from China, it's uncanny how accurate Li Shan is in terms of how the recent COVID-19 pandemic has played out. From the governmental downplaying of the virus to the public indifference towards the growing threat, it's a simultaneous case of "Art Imitating Life" and "Life Imitating Art". The eeriest detail is how the film's beginning shows that Li Shan first began to notice the atypical virus around New Year's--paralleling COVID-19 first being reported to the World Health Organization on December 31st, 2019. As such, watching Li Shan in 2021 makes for a much more impactful watch than it would've had I seen it when it was initially released.
Going into the film itself, Li Shan is a slow-boiling drama as we watch the titular doctor come to realize the danger he's uncovered and fight against both the disease and interference from his naysaying mentor Su Chen (played by Leo Wang). While the suspenseful buildup might have you expecting some higher octane drama in the second act, be prepared for something different. While there are a few short bursts of intense conflict, Li Shan is a mostly subdued drama. We get only brief glimpses at the virus's deadly effects and the film's conclusion proves to be a great departure from our darker reality. But while Li Shan doesn't have much Contagion-esque action, it does have consistently paced drama that is effortlessly carried by its lead actor.
From his first scene of bemoaning the loss of so many patients, Zhan Wang pulls you into the doctor's grief that makes way to a fiery determination to find a cure for the disease. Wang truly throws himself into Li Shan's drive, with some of his best scenes being when Li Shan calls out Su Chen and even his wife Wu Zhen (played by Alice Ko) for their willingness to disregard and ignore the situation. SPOILER ALERT In a realistic twist, though, it turns out that the solution Li Shan devised comes with severe side effects, while Su Chen's serum therapy treatment proves more effective. While the end result wasn't perfect, it's still commendable to see this dedicated doctor fight to inform the public of the danger they're facing and offer the best solution he could find. It also shows that Su Chen--for all his unsavory deeds--is still a knowledgeable doctor. Spoilers Over
Leo Wang and Wu Zhen each follow Zhan Wang's lead in giving fierce performances, as does Anthony Tai as Li Shan's loyal and (from what little we see of him) equally passionate assistant Chen Yi Ming. SPOILER ALERT Though regarding Su Chen's characterization, it's pretty hard to stomach his sudden change by the end of the film. Between his harsh treatment of Li Shan and his deliberately falsifying the virus's death toll, seeing him go from chastising Li Shan to praising him and his actions feels off. This goes hand in hand with the movie's simplistic resolution, with the Ministry of Health immediately releasing the truth once Li Shan gives them the information. After all the buildup around Li Shan's fight to unearth the truth, having that fight be against so little conflict and wrap up in a nice little bow (barring some offscreen backlash over the glucocorticoid debacle) feels at odds with the film's tone. Spoilers Over But looking past writing fumbles, Li Shan is a well-structured and acted drama that tackles a weighty subject with both emotion and a fair amount of nuance.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 chlamydia pathogens.
Directed by London-based consultant radiologist Mohammad Ali Husainy, Never follows the story of Wendy Holt (Christina Raisea Murphy), a young junior doctor facing an inquiry over a devastating surgery--labeled a "Never Event"--that she was involved with. Inspired by hundreds of cases of real-life Never Events (medical incidents caused by preventable human error) that have occurred in United Kingdom hospitals, Never clearly sets out to be a cautionary tale for medical professionals. With the film's straightforward presentation and the way it ends with a scenario showing how surgery should be conducted, I could certainly see this film being used in medical classrooms as a teaching/discussion tool.
But for all its noble intentions, Never isn't as stable as a film. Made on a pittance of 4,500 GBP ($6,205.95 in American currency), the film wears its low budget on its sleeve. The cinematography is notably unremarkable and the audio is garbled throughout. Between the poor sound quality and occasion use of almost painfully loud audio effects, segments of Never's dialogue are left impossible to comprehend. The storytelling is just as simplistic as the camerawork and the pacing is as deliberate as it gets, which might leave the viewer feeling disconnected from the nightmarish gravity of the horrific accident.
But to make up for that disconnect, we have Christina Raisea Murphy playing the central role of Wendy Holt. Murphy visually captures Wendy's nervous uncertainty and deep remorse for her role in the ill-fated operation, which in turn allows the viewer to feel (to some degree) the weight of what's happened. Of her co-stars, Neil Berrett is the most notable for his depiction of the short-sighted and somewhat arrogant Dr. Nicholas Jordan. While his arrogant demeanor comes close to feeling cartoonish, Berrett keeps it reined in enough to where you can buy into Wendy's blinding adoration and loyalty to the doctor. While it's far from a perfect film and is a bit of a technical mess, Never does a good job getting its message across, thanks in no small part to Murphy's performance. In the wake of all the damage left by COVID-19, the importance of thorough medical work can't be overstated.
Score: 5 out of 10 crushed femurs.
På vakt (Alert):
Crazy coincidence how this list will make the second in a row where the third entry is a Norwegian short drama. Like Never, På vakt is also about a surgery that ends in tragedy, with Dr. Nils Bakke (Geirr Johnson) losing a 5-year-old patient on the operating table. The girl's grieving parents file a lawsuit against Nils, but after the trial ends in his favor, the father resorts to other means of holding the doctor responsible for his child's death. Throughout the film, På vakt has a palpably tense atmosphere. We open on the plot-triggering surgery and the conclusion of the ensuing trial, seemingly setting the scene for an emotional confrontation between Dr. Bakke and the vengeful father of his dead patient.
Unfortunately, no such confrontation happens--either with the father or with the man he hires to intimidate Nils into admitting fault. Sturla Berg-Johansen gives the best performance of the film as "Torpedo". He allows the hired thug to ooze smugness as he toys with Nils and tries to scare him into submission. As the story makes clear, he doesn't care about "getting justice" for his client's daughter; he just does what he's paid to do and SPOILER ALERT as the film's sudden ending shows, he might be intent on using his latest mission to indulge his own twisted desires. Spoilers Over Geirr Johnson, meanwhile, is similarly enigmatic as Dr. Nils Bakke. While it's clear from the start that he's innocent of malpractice, it's more ambiguous whether or not Nils feels any remorse or sorrow for his patient's death. His oddly flippant response to Torpedo's attempts at guilt-tripping also raises questions about the doctor's character.
Had all this tension and moral ambiguity been used to better effect by the script, På vakt could've made for a more enthralling tale of revenge and medical morality. But for all the buildup it seemed to be accumulating, the story ends up sputtering its way into a mind-boggling non-ending. It doesn't take too long for the confrontation between Nils and Torpedo to lose its edge. SPOILER ALERT And just when Torpedo reveals that he's had Nils's daughters kidnapped, the movie abruptly ends with Nils nonchalantly beginning to make a phone call. It's left unknown who he's calling at a time like this, with På vakt ending right when it seems like the meat of its action is about to commence. Spoilers Over Despite having a lot of potential behind it, På vakt ends up squandering so much of it that its lead actors' strong performances are mostly rendered moot.
Score: 3.5 out of 10 trips to Kongsberg.
Ms. Kirkland (Sprague Grayden) was put in the care of Dr. Danvers (Priscilla Barnes) after her psychiatric issues caused her to hurt her daughter Jamie (Chelsea Lopez). But now, with Ms. Kirkland taking her medication and making progress with her mental health, Dr. Danvers feels confident that her patient is ready to be discharged. But not long after releasing Ms. Kirkland, Dr. Danvers realizes she may have made a grave mistake. A proof-of-concept pitch for director Frank Ferendo's in-development film Jonah, Jamie is a film chockful of ambiguity. While it may look basic on paper, the execution and performances will leave you wondering if there's more to what's going on with the Kirklands.
Sprague Grayden and Chelsea Lopez's performances are the most responsible for this intriguing ambiguity. Initially, both women give strong performances as an unstable mother and her traumatized daughter respectively. Before the story takes the sudden turn that flips everything on its head, Grayden and Lopez's intense portrayals seem to be gearing us up for an intense conclusion to a tragic story of child abuse. But then we hit that turn and everything changes. SPOILER ALERT With the ending revealing that Ms. Kirkland was right about something being wrong with Jamie, both of their previous actions take on a new connotation. Were Jamie's tears in her first scene genuine because she's been victimized by her mother and/or a supernatural being, or was it an act to hide her true evil nature from her social worker? Who was responsible for Jamie's injuries: her mother, a supernatural force, or herself? And what motivated Ms. Kirkland's apparent attempt to harm Jamie in the climax? Anger? Self-preservation? A desperate effort to free her daughter from an entity controlling her? Or most tragically, an effort to kill Jamie after realizing she's too far gone to save and needs to be stopped? Spoilers Over
All these unanswered questions are sure to annoy some viewers, but unlike På vakt, Jamie's cliffhanger ending doesn't leave you feeling too robbed. instead, it allows you to look back and make your own conclusions about what's happening in the Kirkland house--and what's going to happen after everything that's transpired. Priscilla Barnes rounds out the main cast trio as Dr. Danvers, and while she at times makes the doctor sound overly blasé about her patient and Jamie, she does a good job selling Danvers' shock and horror when she realizes her mistake and learns the truth about her patient. The weakest link of the cast would be Marlynne Frierson Cooley as Jamie's social worker. Unlike Dr. Danvers, she's consistently blasé about Jamie's situation, with Cooley seeming more interested in playing up her character as a cliché "Feisty Black Woman" than as a sympathetic shoulder to a troubled child. But with an overall stellar cast that works with the script to create an intense story with loads of intrigue, Jamie is an engrossing short drama that has me interested in seeing Jonah when Ferendo and crew have it completed.
Score: 7 out of 10 state-provided homeschool plans.
For Dr. Celia Brooks (Allison Janney), what initially seemed like it would be a regular doctor's consultation will turn out to be more complicated than that. The patient in question is Hannah Jones (Dakota Fanning), a 17-year-old girl who also happens to be the daughter of Celia's best friend. So when Celia learns that Hannah is pregnant and has come to her looking to have an abortion, the doctor will have to grapple with her clashing senses of morality. Rodrigo García certainly took on a challenge with Celia, a 9-minute short film tackling the loaded topic of abortion. Given the subject matter, I can easily see some viewers immediately siding with one character and demonizing the other, thus missing the point of the film.
Because ultimately, Celia isn't really about abortion. While Hannah's intention of having one is the plot catalyst, the movie is more focused on Celia feeling torn between her relationships with Hannah and her mother and her duties as a doctor. Allison Janney and Dakota Fanning have good chemistry together as Celia and Hannah first reconnect, making their conversation's descent into uncomfortable territory hit harder. But thanks to time constraints, their heated conversation is too quick-paced to have as much impact as it could've. As such, Janney and Fanning can only delve into their characters' emotionally complex situations in broad strokes before the credits start rolling.
Still, in spite of the film's rushed nature, Janney and Fanning's performances are enough to allow you to feel for both Celia and Hannah. While I found myself cringing a little as Celia began letting her personal feelings interfere with her work, I could also understand her apprehension. Through no fault of her own, Celia is thrust into the position of making a choice where both options come with difficult consequences. It helps that Celia isn't really opposed to Hannah wanting to terminate her pregnancy, but more that she doesn't want Hannah to make such a big decision without talking it through with someone she knows and trusts. Hannah, meanwhile, starts the visit as a headstrong and informed teen who's certain of her decision. But as the film goes on, Fanning allows us to see that beneath Hannah's hard shell lies a scared young woman who may not be as confident about her decision as she lets on.
With only 9 minutes to tell such a heavily packed story, Celia buckles under the weight of its runtime. But its talented lead stars manage to bring some emotional resonance of their own, making up for how constricted they are by the story rushing through its emotional center. They can't make up for all that ends up lost to plot velocity, but Janney and Fanning's presence in Celia still makes it a drama worth watching.
Score: 6 out of 10 menstrual cycle charts.
The final film of this list is also coming to us from YouTube channel WIGS and the third film in a row to be titled after a character's first name. In this case, the titular character is doctor Mary (Melora Walters), whose rounds at her hospital are interrupted when an unexpected patient arrives with severe injuries: her sister. While even shorter than Celia, Mary makes better use of its sparse minutes than the previously discussed WIGS film. The first half of the film allow us to get to know Mary a bit before her sister Sara arrives, with the remaining time giving us a chance to share in the doctor's sisterly worry before finishing on a surprise twist.
Melora Walters gives a natural and empathic performance as the title doctor, making her credible as a compassionate doctor and sister. SPOILER ALERT Mary also ends the film on a heroic note when the well-delivered twist comes into play. After realizing that Sara's injuries were caused by her husband Tom, Mary wastes no time in reporting the abuse as the film ends. While it's still a somewhat abrupt conclusion, it's a fine moment to end on. Props go out to Patrick Fabian, who delivers the voicemail reveal of Tom's violent nature with alarming cruelty after giving us some well-acted shots of foreshadowing. Spoilers Over
In the last noteworthy cast member, we have Eric Roberts as Dr. Marley. While Marley is your standard Pompous Doctor type, Roberts plays him with such self-assured charisma that you can't really hate the guy. Adding to that, the script keeps Marley's ego from getting too infuriating, which also gives credence to Mary's later admission that for all his annoying qualities, Dr. Marley is good at what he does. Dr. Marley's inclusion in the story also adds another compelling layer to Mary's character. She's unafraid to call Marley out for his egotistical ways, but is still able to trust his medical abilities when it comes to her sister's treatment. While the ending is bound to disappoint a few viewers, Mary is nevertheless a well-written and acted medical drama that wraps up this list on a good (heart)beat.
Score: 8 out of 10 blood triglyceride levels.
To compare this list to things you might find in a doctor's office, there were only a few needles to be found in this jar of lollipops. In fact, the only memorably painful "needle" of the bunch would be På vakt. Other films that ranked lower on my scale (Never and Celia) still had a fair amount of strong points to offset their weaker elements. If nothing else, all these films show (to some degree or another) the hard work doctors and other people in the medical field do to help their patients. Even without a global pandemic, it's a tough job. So to help honor and give much-needed financial support to doctors everywhere, I've included a few links below to some places where you can donate money or learn about other ways to help. And to any doctors reading this: thank you for all that you've done and continue to do as we work to put an end to this devastating pandemic.