Taiwan’s response to the pandemic has been praised the world over. There were many reasons Taiwan did so well, and one of them is our experience with the 2003 SARS outbreak, including the emergency lockdown of Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital, where a cluster of cases was found. Authorities were unprepared for the speed of the spread, and locking down 1,000 mostly noninfected people with little guidance caused chaos and, later, political fallout. Lin Chun-yang’s (林君陽) Eye of the Storm (疫起), written by Liu Tsun-han (劉存菡) in 2017(!), is inspired by the events in that hospital, later renamed the Heping Fuyou Branch of Taipei City Hospital.

Anyone who’s been to a Taiwanese hospital will recognize the setting. Production designer Huang Mei-ching (黃美清) was able to play with two decommissioned hospitals dating back to the early 2000s to achieve that extra bit of authenticity. And though the protagonists are fictionalized composites, most major plot points are based on the historical record.

Thoracic surgeon Hsia Zheng (Wang Po-chieh 王柏傑) just wants to get home in time for his daughter’s birthday. Ending his shift early, he’s criticized on his way out by intern Lee Xing-Yan (Chloe Xiang 項婕如 in idol drama mode) and nurse Ang Tai-he (Tseng Jing-hua 曾敬驊) — we later learn that the two are dating. Xia is already in a homebound taxi when a last-minute emergency patient turns him around. After arriving, the driver (Chang Yung-cheng 張永正) makes a pit stop at the hospital restroom. When he makes for his car, he finds that the doors have been shut by the cops. Then he discovers a little girl (Lai Yu-fei 賴雨霏) who has snuck in to search for her mother, a hospital employee.

It’s incredibly unnerving to see everyone at this hospital interact without gloves or even masks, despite the constant sound of coughing in the background (the credits thank “those who donated their coughs”). The camera highlights these interactions, playing on the viewer’s post-pandemic intuitions of social distancing (cinematography by Jake Pollock).

One of Xia’s patients is Jing Yu-zhong (Simon Hsueh 薛仕凌), the seemingly sleazy tabloid reporter who broke the story of the outbreak that led to the lockdown. Xia always looks out for number one, and Jing convinces him that if they work together to figure out the chain of infection, they’ll be let out faster. They comb through medical records while trying to avoid doing any legitimate work.

And there’s a lot of work. The hospital leadership and government authorities are missing in action (by design, said writer Liu during a post-screening Q&A), so on top of continuing to care for patients, hospital staff have to arrange and distribute resources. Ultimately, Xia is noticed and assigned to go to the lobby from A Wing, where he works, to pick up lunch and deliver it to B Wing, where the infected have been quarantined.

This is when I realized that melodrama is the perfect genre for this story. Wearing two layers of ad hoc PPE, Xia enters the long dark corridor separating the two wings. What he finds on the other side are dimly (and greenly) lit hallways, empty of people but full of red biohazard trash bags. The odd nurse rushes past with a corpse on a stretcher; at one point, a nurse exits a hospital room by collapsing into the hallway, only to get up, tell him that she’s “fine,” and limp away. It’s hell.

Also terrifying is when an infected person is found in the lobby, and a hazmat-wearing team is sent to decontaminate the area. It’s probably not very realistic to do so before clearing people out, but the contrast evokes something like an alien invasion (and horror stories from China). More realistic, even nauseating, are the two of Xia’s surgeries that bookend the film, thanks to input from medical consultants and the work of the Thai special effects team.

Meanwhile, the lovebirds are separated when someone recalls that Ang had helped out in B Wing prior to the lockdown, and he’s pressured into quarantining himself by “helping out” there again. Watching him make his nurse’s rounds in the all-enveloping atmosphere of fear and uncertainty really brings home the courage of frontline health workers in 2003 and 2020. Of course, not every health worker is so brave (i. e., Xia), and back in A Wing, Lee has to deal with colleagues who go on strike to protest the authorities’ lack of protective guidance. The film tries very hard to portray what some might see as cowardice as the perfectly rational decision to protect oneself.

As for the little girl, well, her story is the most manipulative of the plotlines, and the only good thing I can say about it is that it shows in real time how ordinary people learn to mask up and stay masked, which we should all consider doing in the face of long Covid.

Despite some unconvincing contrivances, Eye of the Storm powerfully evokes the dread and uncertainty of the early days of a communicable viral outbreak. Perhaps for some people it comes too soon after their own pandemic trauma; but for others, it offers reassurance that they didn’t go through it alone.

Eye of the Storm is part of the 2023 Taipei Film Festival.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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