Eye of the Storm: Netflix’s pandemic melodrama shines a light on the humanity of healthcare workers

Eye of the Storm: Netflix's pandemic melodrama shines a light on the humanity of healthcare workers

Netflix’s Taiwanese drama, Eye of the Storm, is the latest cinematic portrayal of a pandemic. But instead of focusing on COVID, this film tells the story of the 2003 Sars epidemic through the Taipei City Hospital’s Heping branch. This real event, in which a cataclysmic epidemic causes the closure of the hospital, serves as the backdrop for the film.

While eyes in a storm often appear calm, this hospital is in chaos. Drawing inspiration from previous medical thrillers such as Contagion (2011), Eye of the Storm has all the tropes of a medical drama. But the story is also peppered with melodramatic overtones, creating what I call a “medical melodrama”.

At its heart is Dr Xia Zheng (Po-Chieh Wang), an accomplished but self-centered surgeon who suddenly finds himself trapped within the confines of a quarantined hospital. A noble male nurse, An Taihe (Tseng Jing Hua) and an empathetic surgical intern, Dr. Li Xinyan (Chloe Xiang) offer a stark contrast to his characters.

Adding another dimension to the story is Jin Youzhong (Simon Hsueh), a tabloid journalist with an insatiable appetite for explosive stories about the outbreak. These protagonists represent a wide spectrum of emotions and responses in dealing with the hardships of a pandemic.

Like a standard melodrama, the film’s narrative is built around Dr Xia’s transformative journey. From her initial characterization, driven by personal ambition and ego, she develops into a beacon of hope and selflessness.

He altruistically joins forces with Youzhong, a tabloid reporter, in a desperate attempt to uncover the identity of patient zero. While this forms the backbone of the story, the subplot – the love affair between Taihe and Dr Li, which is interrupted by the maker’s infection – heightens the film’s emotional tension.

Create a medical melodrama

So how does the medical melodrama Eye of the Storm work? This film exposes the viewer to emotional scenes. One striking moment depicts a desperate child pounding on the door of the intensive care unit, desperate to see his critically ill mother. Later, there is a heartbreaking scene in which a couple separates on the roof of the hospital, in the pouring rain.

The film uses various cinematic techniques to enhance these emotional moments. Most notably, it employs extreme close-up and first-person shots, which are achieved with a shaky handheld camera. Additionally, the haunting soundtrack and depiction of gruesome medical procedures sharply emphasize the characters’ physical and psychological turmoil.

The trailer for Eye of the Storm.

This strategy is not purely aesthetic. They help viewers remember their own losses and remember the lessons learned in the COVID pandemic.

I believe Eye of the Storm is intentionally melodramatic to facilitate catharsis and allow the viewer to release repressed emotions. Our “ordinary” everyday pandemic experiences – such as wearing masks, hand sanitizing, quarantine, temperature checks and lockdowns – are made extraordinary through the event’s melodramatic amplification.

Successes and drawbacks

Eye of the Storm is not perfect. The dynamics between the characters – especially the bond that binds Dr Xia and Youzhong, or the romantic relationship between Taihe and Dr Li – is rushed and underdeveloped. A prime example is the head nurse who suddenly switches from leading a strike to dutifully caring for a patient.

The film also ends with an ambiguous ending, leaving audiences yearning for clarity, especially considering the real-life inspiration.

That said, Eye of the Storm is a valuable contribution to the pandemic genre in Chinese cinema. In contrast to films like Chinese Doctors (2021), which rely heavily on hero-worship, Eye of the Storm freshly highlights the humanity and vulnerability of healthcare workers. This Taiwanese production, in its focus on the internal dilemmas of medical professionals, offers a striking contrast to the overt Chinese taste of mainland film propaganda.

On a deeper level, Eye of the Storm is a commentary on press freedom. Through the character of a journalist, this film recalls the tragic story of Li Wenliang, a reporter for the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, China. His warnings were silenced and he was punished for spreading misinformation by the government, which eventually succumbed to the virus.

The film’s audacity to represent a journalist investigating the origins of an outbreak would have been unthinkable under mainland China’s strict censorship. These differences not only set a dramatic trajectory, but underscore the deep ideological and political differences in the Chinese-speaking region.

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