The first thing anyone will notice about Wang Bing’s documentary ‘Til Madness Do Us Part is its formidable length. At 227 minutes, it was a daunting prospect, but one that proved both rewarding and frustrating. I’m finding it a little hard to wrap my head around this film so bear with me.
Madness charts the lives of inmates at a mental hospital in Yunnan province in China; I call them inmates because this is essentially a prison. The presence of doctors seems cursory at best. They administer pills, shots, and beatings where they feel it necessary, but their behaviour is more befitting of a warden than a mental health practitioner.
The extreme length is the only real way to get a true sense of what life is like inside this institution. The film never questions people’s sanity one way or the other mostly because it’s almost impossible to tell. Most of the inmates filmed have lived there for anywhere from two to twenty years; this is in cramped, filthy conditions with often four beds to a blank room, a TV lounge, and nothing else. There are no bathrooms, so urine goes into fetid bowls or onto the ground. There’s always noise somewhere, always someone disturbing the peace.
There’s one man they call The Mute because his real name is unknown; he can’t say much but he’s fond of slapping the wall with his slipper as though chasing invisible bugs and saying, “Die! Die! Die!” There’s a grumpy man whose family has seemingly placed him here because he’s just too much to handle at home, and also a married couple living on different floors (men and women are separated) trying to keep their romance alive.
This is grim, ugly stuff. A new inmate is visited by his daughter in the film’s second half and she says as much that he’s there because his “nerves are shot”. He’ll be home once he’s better, she says, but you only wonder how many others had been told as much. Another inmate sums it up thusly: “Being locked in here too long can turn you mentally ill.”
The picture that emerges of this institution is that it’s a place of neutralisation, where society’s unwanted can be shoved away, drugged, and placed in an environment that with time would cause illness in anyone. These hospitals accept inmates indiscriminately; at any one time you might be watching a murderer as much as you might be watching someone who was punished for having to live on the street or another for refusing to follow family planning laws. The most serene amongst them may have been the religious, though the end of the film informs us that zealotry is one of the many possible reasons a person might be there (the couple of people we see praying appear to be Muslim, which may be part of it).
If A Touch of Sin (reviewed on Saturday) fictionalises the suffering of modern China under a brutal weight of overpopulation and industrialisation, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part plunges headlong into the reality of it. In a clever formal trick, Bing utilises the length to normalise both behaviour and surroundings. In the final hour or so, he begins to revisit inmates previously seen. It gives a sense of day-to-day existence for these people, and through that normalisation and exposure, you begin to feel as trapped as the inmates.
In only one sequence does the camera move outside the hospital when one man visits his family at New Year. His mother hopes he’ll be home for good, but has only applied for ten days leave just in case. As he walks out onto the road your mind and soul beg that the film end, to free us and them from this place forever. But that’s not how a place like that works.
There’s a sliver of hopefulness, however, in simple communities and friendships Wang observes. Even if the film often drifts into tedium, the length isn’t hugely noticeable even if it does make watching it a struggle. The time drifts by in the stream of mundaneness onscreen, a deliberately bland, apolitical excoriation of a system failing its people. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a meaningful glance into an unknown world.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.