The fate of five families between the corridors, waiting rooms and beds of Shanghai No. 6 Hospital. Director Ye Ye tells a piece of China in the documentary “H6”, presented at Cannes in 2021.
H6 from Ye Ye
Released February 2, 2022
The destiny of five families is played out at Shanghai No. 6 Hospital. Through their intertwined stories, a portrait of today’s China emerges between traditional culture and modernity. Solidarity, tenderness and a sense of humor allow families and patients to stay the course in the face of the vagaries of life.
AlloCiné: How was the “H6” project born? What was your intention?
Ye Ye (director): It started during a hospitalization I suffered in France. I was surprised to see how the report to the disease was different than in my memories of China. Many things that I had forgotten while living abroad came to the surface. I wanted to reflect on this subject. So I went back to China to look for information. Very quickly, the idea of a documentary appeared to me as the best way to talk about the ideas I had in mind.
We see a lot of images about China, with very biased points of view, one way or the other. I wanted to leave the viewer face to face with real Chinese people so that they can form their own point of view. So that he realizes that the Chinese are humans like the others, even if their capacities for resilience are different from those of Westerners.
Were you surprised that in the Chinese hospital, the word “money” is so often pronounced, while the word “health” is almost absent?
I do not agree with the absence of the word “health”. Each of the characters thinks first of all about their physical health, but also about their psychological health in the face of the event. The money is there, of course, but my characters almost always find solutions to this problem. They are ready to do anything to recover their health and resume their lives. The Chinese are very realistic and believe that more money means faster and more effective care. Family and friends are always ready to help in these difficult times. They first think about money, but very quickly focus on health. They also believe, as one character puts it, that a good mood helps healing.
How would you compare the Chinese healthcare system and the French healthcare system?
It is impossible to compare the health systems of different countries. It may be noted that Americans who have seen the film never refer to the problem of money. Chinese society has crossed in thirty years what Western societies have taken more than a century to cross. China has advanced in the last decades by leaps and bounds in the medical field.
Today, there are hospitals everywhere, with very well trained medical personnel. It is generally very efficient and fast. I cannot say that she has reached this level without obstacles, but I can say that there is no problem in accessing services. Since the shooting of the film, the peasants have better access to social security. In the case of Nie Shiwu, the problem is more the absence of personal insurance (like Civil Liability) than that of Social Security.
You film the Chinese hospital like a factory and its staff like health care workers. Is that what the daily life there inspired you?
In China, there are 1.5 billion people. A city like Shanghai has more than 25 million inhabitants. Inevitably, everything is on a different scale. So, a station, a post office, a hospital, it’s always a lot of people. It takes a very strict organization for it to work. Despite the workload, we see in the film that nurses and doctors are often very human. They talk with the sick about something other than the disease.
How did you choose your “characters”? Was this done during filming, editing, or had you spotted these different profiles beforehand?
I had spotted profiles during my investigation. I wanted a certain number of characters representative of contemporary China. I knew I would find them. It was simply necessary to choose the most interesting. In such a large hospital, the problem of “casting” does not (unfortunately) arise. There are always sick or injured people.
For me, the editing started right from the shoot. I was constantly editing in my head. I filmed eight families to keep only five in the editing, in order to have harmony and rhythm in the final film. Each of the characters I have chosen has a rich and touching life. I wish that the spectators have the feeling to have approached a little the heart of China and the Chinese people through them.
How did the filming go? How did you convince these families to accept your camera? How did you find the right distance for what you were filming?
I shot at the same time as the television series, which had more than 100 fixed cameras all over the hospital. So my two cameras weren’t really a problem. Especially since I took the time to talk with caregivers, families and patients before choosing who to film. Authorizations from the hospital required some negotiation. But there was a trust since the first season of the TV series.
The reasons for agreeing to be filmed, for patients, are diverse. Some wanted to share their situation, others didn’t really dare to refuse (like the old couple). I did not insist when I had a negative answer. Exceptionally, I allowed myself to insist on the man with the injured knee, because he seemed to me totally in tune with what he represents. In the end, he accepted.
The organization of the shooting was complicated because all the characters were shot at the same time. It was therefore necessary to be very present with them so as not to miss important moments for the narration. Above all, it was necessary to find the right distance with each of them, to be close to their emotions while being forgotten.
So for this shoot, I found people who protected me and allowed me to establish the right distance with the patients. I worked with two assistants to avoid having too direct contact with the patients, because it’s always difficult not to feel empathy for sick people.
One of the assistants took care of practical matters with the hospital, the other served as my “shield” vis-à-vis the characters. This saved me from being overwhelmed with emotion repeatedly. It was also a way to prevent patients from creating a special relationship with me, which could have changed their attitude. They were as natural with me as with someone on the medical team.
During the presentation at Cannes, you said you wanted to show the resilience of the Chinese people, their joyful pessimism. What do you mean ?
I had had the opportunity, in my adolescence, to observe this mixture of humor and fatalism, of love and dependence, which characterizes, in my opinion, the resistance of the Chinese to adversity. I deepened in the film what I now call a joyful pessimism. Joyful pessimism is not resignation or despair, it is optimism with a hint of bitterness.
Although aware of the seriousness of the situation, patients are often seen making self-mockery, bragging to each other, or joking about death and life’s difficulties. Even if the situation in which I film them is really very difficult, I never had the feeling that they repressed their sadness. What emerges is a very strong optimism.
Can you introduce us to each of your “characters” and what facet of Chinese society each seems to embody?
The old couple represents the intellectuals, today a little overwhelmed by the too rapid progress of China. What they have left is love. The singer father represents the middle class: he is the archetype of the refusal to express his emotions, except in a version that seems staged. The paralyzed man and his wife represent the peasant class: their dream is to be able to give their children a better education than the one they received: he is the archetype of the importance of the family. The grandfather/father/granddaughter represent the second generation of immigrant villagers in town: they are the archetypes of the daily struggle for survival and are not yet ready to evolve. Finally, the old man with a leg injury represents the poor workers: he is the archetype of tenacity, he does not advance quickly, but never stops.
Did you show them the film? What did they think of it?
I have news from time to time, but I haven’t shown them the film. They agreed to be the characters without really expecting anything, without even imagining what it meant, so far from their daily lives. It was more of a need to share their feelings at the time. But I’m not sure they would want to see it. He would probably remind them of too many difficult times in their lives.