Dan Wei’s The Ark is an extraordinary glance at the struggles of a family doing all they can for an ailing loved one. As uncomfortable a watch as the film is, it also becomes an important document of what we all will or already have gone through with a dying loved one, making this raw and powerful documentary simply unmissable.
While the first reports of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan are heard on the news, Xiuhua, who is suffering from a different disease, is fighting for her life. The doctors may have given up on her, but her children and grandchildren haven’t, and they’re doing everything possible to keep her with them for a little while longer.
The Ark is a tough watch, and even more so if you are someone who has had to care for and see an older relative deteriorate from a disease. As someone who witnessed both of their parents goes through such a time, it brought harrowing flashbacks and pain. However, I feel it was meant to do so, to lift the lid on what happens during this period of time and the effects it has on a family. To this point it achieves its goes better than any film has in quite some time.
So while this is as impartial a review of The Ark as possible, I may veer off into unedited tangents. For that I both apologise and also don’t. I connected so emotionally to this film, that to hide it would not be fair on you dear reader. By having lived what Dan Wei and his family did throughout this documentary, I feel it and you are owed my honesty.
The decision of Wei to have his film in a 1:1 frame and predominately in black and white causes an almost claustrophobic feel to the film; even when we are away from the family and looking at a horizon, we feel closed in, trapped and unable to escape. This almost certainly had to have been purposely done as it not only echoes Xiuhua’s struggles as her remaining moments close in on her. But also with her family, they are, for want of a better term, trapped in looking after her.
They have to because they love her, and they want her to fight through the disease, and if she cannot fight, to at least be comfortable and know how loved she is. You cannot leave a person at this moment for the simple fear that you may miss something important, or worse, their last moment. It screams deeply within you to be omnipresent, you fight through the exhaustion to be there. It is a torment that you could not wish on anyone, and Wei so vividly, perhaps too vividly, showcases that here in The Ark.
As said, the family are around Xiuhua because they love her, but they also support one another. No family member is left behind in getting the care they need. They look after each other throughout all of this immeasurable stress. Naturally, though, a strain will build between everyone, who just want to do the best for each other but are so stuck in the situation that they eventually snap. Only feeling able to do so at a specific time towards the film’s end. Another moment will have those who have previously gone through this relating on such a personal level.
Situations like this are never easy, and even the best of us falter. Wei documents all of these moments with a mixture of shots. Long static ones, making his camera feel as if it has been left alone and two siblings just so happen to have sat and had a conversation in front of it. Then we have the quicker cuts, giving us glimpses of what has been happening during this time, be it in the hospital room or out in the corridors.
Wei never stops filming. We see enemas emptying of colostomy bags and the hardest of discussions. At one point, the family convened to discuss moving Xiuhua to another hospital to see if they could give her the treatment they needed her to. Frustration in the stress comes to the fore, and questions begin to get asked, are the doctors doing enough for her? Do they see her as too far gone to give the help she deserves? The pain is never ending for this group of people, and we can only but watch as they go through every emotion possible, even desperation.
There is one shot as the doctor discusses a gallbladder issue where Wei moves back, and as he is telling one of the family members, the rest are all huddled together in the background, observing. It is such a striking moment in the film that you forget you have watched multiple uncomfortable moments and realise you are wholly invested in this struggle.
All the while, throughout this time in The Ark, COVID is hitting China, so we also begin to see the safeguards from the hospital slowly get introduced. From everyone wearing their masks to the cleaning team spraying the hospital’s walls to sanitise as much as possible. As someone whose own father died in the pandemic from a non-COVID issue, it is almost meditative and reassuring to see that others went through the same way they cared for their family members. You realise you are not alone in the world, that others grief as you still grieve.
Wei has allowed the world into a troubled period for him and his family, and you can only thank him for that. He has made a special documentary in The Ark and one that, in my case at least, will be one that will stay with me.
The Ark is showing during the Odyssey Chinese Cinema Season and can be found here.
For more of the season check out our reviews below:
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