As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.
It’s 2003, and a medical epidemic is growing in China. Li Shan is a doctor in a hospital in Guangzhou who notices that this isn’t any typical respiratory illness they’ve seen before. Yet, to his distress, the government lies about the illness, saying it is just regular pneumonia. Li Shan believes that this nascent epidemic is something more: SARS.
Li Shan confronts his supervisor about hiding the nature of the illness but is subsequently suspended from his job. Putting his health on the line, he sneaks back into the hospital to steal a blood sample to test the virus and confirm his suspicions. Increasingly desperate as misfortune falls upon his own family, he attempts to find a way to treat it, and finally reveals the truth to the public.
Writer-director Wenqi You’s suspenseful drama may be about SARS, and its complications of government suppression of information at the expense of human lives is highly topical. But it’s about more than just an epidemic. Featuring an engrossing, well-calibrated script and a thoughtful approach to craft, it’s also a portrait of heroism, and what it means to persevere in the face of indifference, secrecy and lies.
The strength of the narrative lies in its steady focus on its titular character, unraveling the complexities of the epidemic as he confronts treacherous political obstacles, work policies, family commitments and the demands of his own conscience. The scope of the storytelling is quite wide, especially for a short, and yet with the clarity of the filmmaking and detail of the writing, we never lose sight of Li Shan and how he wrestles with the problems he encounters. The result is a resolutely humanistic perspective on a subject that can quickly become abstract, especially as numbers add up and the human experiences they represent become more distant.
Actor Zhan Wang brings Li Shan to life with great subtlety and precision, and through his performance, viewers understand the increasingly difficult decisions he has to manage, as well as the growing stakes. Li Shan is a complex character, and he’s not played like a saint, but a flawed, deeply human person who is trying to do his best under increasingly desperate circumstances and make hard choices — choices that can complicate as much as save lives.
In the end, it’s this nuanced interrogation of what heroism really means that creates resonance and provokes thought in “Li Shan.” Public health is a complicated mosaic of influences, policies and realities that can seem overwhelming to conceptualize, but we can all understand Li Shan’s struggle to do the right thing in the most challenging and imperfect of circumstances.
Heroes are defined not by just the results they achieve, but the way they forge ahead and take action to do what they believe is right with great courage and fortitude. These decisions are never perfect because human beings are not perfect, but they almost always require bravery and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.