THE PHARMACY (Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan, 1972-75)

I have just added this entry to my list of the 100 greatest films ever made.

In the years just before Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, which signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, Joris Ivens and wife Marceline Loridan took their cameras into Pharmacy No. 3 in Shanghai, which in addition to dispensing drugs manages an outreach program of medical services (after attending to peasants, pharmacists work in the fields alongside them), an extension of the pharmacy’s in-house medical care center.
     The employees have developed five rules for themselves: to show the same concern for both steady customers and transients, for those who buy and those who simply want information, and for those who buy a lot and those who buy a little; to be equally attentive to customers no matter how busy the pharmacy or whether it is day or night. Their goal is to wholeheartedly serve the public.
     There is a fascinating discussion of the competing motives of profit and service; at a weekly employee meeting, one of the participants reconfirms, “We should be concerned [above all else] with people’s needs.” This has nothing to do with dictate (“The customer is always right”) and everything to do with what the workers themselves feel should be motivating them.
     La pharmacie Nº 3: Shanghai keeps widening, eventually integrating the employees and patrons into the bustling life of the port city. The opening shot at dawn evokes a Turner painting; the closing one, a long-shot of Shanghai citizens under umbrellas in the rain, Ivens’s Regen (1929), to “de-exoticize” the Chinese.
     This documentary is more relaxed and fluent than other brilliant documentaries by Holland’s Ivens; the difference may be Loridan, born Rosenberg, a teenaged survivor of a Nazi death camp. There are no tirades against capitalism, only a warm embrace of Chinese humanity.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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