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Restoring the Light

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Carol Liu
Directed by Carol Liu
DVD , color, 55 min.
Jr. High - General Adult
Health Sciences, Sociology, Ethics

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 4/3/2013

Ningxia is a centrally-located autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, made up of several administrative districts. Ningxia could be easily overlooked, compared to neighboring Chinese provinces with expanding economies. With a relatively small population (six million) compared to other regions, Ningxia’s consumer demand lags, while rural business material and transportation costs are high. In any isolated setting, industrial byproducts and waste avoid scrutiny, potentially creating environmental health effects. There are less than 15 registered hospitals in Ningxia, spread out over approximately 25,000 square miles. The demands for both primary and specialist health care far outstrip the supply, and patients do not choose to travel long distances for healthcare if their work productivity suffers. Patients afflicted with treatable illness may never access a specialized health facility or see a medical specialist for simple solutions we take for granted, shortening life expectancy in places like Ningxia.

Against a backdrop of chronic need and adversity for this rural Chinese area, the 2011 documentary Restoring the Light chronicles grim rural poverty, chronic effects of untreated illness, extraordinary resilience in two families that dare to dream, and the efforts of one young eye surgeon to resist mainstream success to return to his Ningxia homeland to make a difference. We are treated to two sides of a health care conundrum: physician ambition to make a difference; and health problems that tip many families’ fragile economic and emotional balance.

The film’s director, Carol Liu, selects two Ningxia family stories to illustrate the limited effectiveness of modern healthcare in a nation where 60% of the population is rural, without access to specialized medicine. Children and families tell their own heartbreaking stories, most often with original on-location audio and soft musical overdubbing. Captions are provided in English. A blind boy, Juncheng, living since infancy with permanent corneal damage, possesses special needs that overwhelm the competence of teachers and harried parents. At age 10 he is homebound and clearly bored. Juncheng’s emotional support is provided by his sister, herself diagnosed with epilepsy. Film Director Liu was able to convince the school to allow one attendance day for Juncheng and sister go to school together. The teacher tells viewers her classroom does not serve Juncheng’s needs and that the sister’s epileptic seizures in school are increasing. Juncheng’s family cannot abandon the hope that medical intervention for both their children might make a difference: it is their only hope. But money is tight, and basic sustenance is more important than epilepsy medication.

Viewers are also introduced to a second family, a matriarchal grandmother named Yuan with deteriorating vision and increasing inability to work on the farm. Her youngest granddaughter, teenage Rongrong, dreams of being an artist and we see her impressive sketches and hear her soft-spoken optimism and ambition. Rongrong’s own health concern is a severely deformed foot, possibly infected, which limits not only her farm activity but also her suitability for marriage into a future family that would expect labor contribution. So Rongrong dreams of entering an art college. Projected college tuition costs have already motivated her father to take a factory job that requires absences from the farm. Rongrong is triangularly torn between the desire to restore her grandmother’s sight, curing her disability to take farm pressure off her grandmother, and the desire to find purpose in art.

Grandmother Yuan, Rongrong, and Juncheng encounter the health care revolution that Dr. Zhang Xubin, an ophthalmology clinician and eye surgeon, brings to Yinchuan City with his mobile healthcare experiment, the Huimin Eye Clinic. Only one of the patients we meet, Grandmother Yuan, progresses beyond Dr. Xubin’s diagnosis to an actual eye operation. In contrast to the struggles of agricultural-based rural life, Film Director Liu also obtains access to Dr. Xubin’s home and family life. He talks matter-of-factly about his decision to fund his mobile eye clinic by selling his family’s home, an incredibly noble or incredibly impulsive act. Viewers meet both the physician’s spouse and daughter and briefly follow this modern family’s quest to find a new home and economize, all to fund eye clinic compassionate care. During one family dinner, in deference to the video camera, Dr. Xubin’s spouse literally swallows her pride with her soup and after a long pause and suggests further frugality to support her husband’s dream to help others.

The cinematography and captioning provide a compelling viewer experience, even with uncomfortable topics such as debilitating old age, illness, and even the death of children that cannot access life-saving cures. There certainly are hopeful outcomes for at least two patient protagonists. On the other hand, the film’s epilogue provides a terse reality check on the limits of short-term solutions: Juncheng’s sister suffered an epileptic seizure on the way home from school and passed away before anyone could find her. Juncheng damaged corneas are inoperable. Dr. Xubin’s mobile clinic closes, and his work returns to a modern hospital setting.

Dr. Xubin’s own admission that his clinic charity has helped him to look at the reward for helping others is a provocative contrast with the material prosperity and needs of his own family. One hopes this reflects the ambivalence that many Chinese health care leaders could understandably feel with a national health care system that works in prosperous urban population centers but is hard pressed, unsustainable, and ineffective in rural provinces. Perhaps the discussions during Chinese screenings of this film will provide a spark toward systematic reforms and investigation of how to sustain specialized care facilities in challenging locations. Restoring the Light provides many starting points for discussion of health care deficiencies, and not just in China but also in comparable undeveloped areas in many other regions of the world.

Restoring the Light is highly recommended for all public, academic, and high school audiences.