A hospital is put under full lockdown during the 2003 SARS epidemic in director Chun-Yang Lin’s medical thriller Eye of the Storm, recently released on Netflix after a theatrical run in its native Taiwan. Expertly filmed, largely thrilling and occasionally affecting, the movie mimics the confusing emotions everyone around the world experienced in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But do audiences really want to revisit those uncertain and often terrifying days again? Does Eye of the Storm have any new observations to make about humanity, its propensity to trap itself in a cycle of self-destruction and resurrection? It does and it doesn’t.
The film opens with Dr Xia, ostensibly our protagonist, leaving work early to make it in time for his daughter’s birthday. Immediately, he seems slightly self-involved. Over the phone, his estranged wife sounds like she lost all patience with him years ago, and even as he’s trying to assure his daughter that he’ll be with her soon, it doesn’t seem like his heart is in it. He ignores the driver of a parked cab when the man says that he’s done for the day and that he, Dr Xia, should look for another taxi to take him home. And when he is summoned back to the hospital a few minutes after leaving, he looks visibly peeved, and instructs the driver to take him back, without so much as an apology for wasting his time.
Dr Xia doesn’t know it yet, but he isn’t going to be able to leave the hospital anytime soon, because shortly after his unplanned return, the entire facility is put under quarantine after a secretly filmed video raises concerns about a SARS outbreak stemming from within its walls. The video was leaked to news channels by an intrepid reporter, who himself was admitted to the hospital. Together with the reluctant Dr Xia, they investigate the origins of the outbreak over the course of the movie, while the doctor tries his best to weasel his way out of assignments and figure out a way to leave.
Not only does having a grey protagonist make sense dramaturgically, as Jeremy Strong would say, it also captures the film’s primary theme: decency. While some people are born with a desire to serve selflessly, others need the occasional push. Rather romantically, the film suggests that even the most cowardly of us has the ability to do good if appropriately encouraged.
But the Eye of the Storm is at its weakest when it turns to melodrama. A subplot involving a young male nurse and his doctor girlfriend belongs in a different movie — or more precisely, TV drama — altogether; it feels very contrived. Brief cutaways to the taxi driver’s — he gets locked in, too — evolving bond with a lost girl effectively diffuse the tension, especially in the film’s fast-paced first half. Eye of the Storm functions mainly as a thriller at this stage, shot in a clinical verité style by cinematographer Jake Pollock.
The sound design, peppered with stray coughing in the background, adds to the creeping paranoia, even though the characters seem mostly oblivious to what is happening on the outside. In some ways, Eye of the Storm is a lot like the fantastic Malayalam-language film Virus, whose dramatisation of the 2018 Nipah outbreak in Kerala not only served as a tribute to the human spirit during that time, but also foreshadowed the resilience of medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Unlike Virus, however, Eye of the Storm restricts the drama to within the confines of the hospital. It treats external drama almost as a contaminant, which means that there is no room for political skulduggery and backroom decision-making. We are never told who decided to put the hospital under lockdown, whether or not they weighed the pros and cons of doing this, or even if similar situations are unfolding in parallel at different locations across Taiwan. This adds to the sense of claustrophobia that the movie is aiming for; as an audience, we feel trapped as well.
But the trouble with movies of this type is that it requires uncommon skill to maintain a certain level of tension for two hours. And once the air is let out of the narrative — either on purpose or by mistake — there’s virtually no coming back. Unfortunately, this happens in Eye of the Storm just before the third act. And the movie is never able to fully recover. Had it been able to, it would’ve been unmissable. But as it stands, Eye of the Storm is a valiant effort at best.
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Eye of the StormDirector – Chun-Yang LinCast – Po-Chieh Wang, Jing-Hua Tseng, Chloe Xiang, Simon Hsueh, Yung-Cheng ChangRating – 3/5
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