In the Margins

Aaron Cutler on the 2013 Indie Festival in Brazil

Wang Bing, ’Til Madness Do Us Part, 2013, color, sound, 227 minutes.

A MAN IS SHOWN RACING down a narrow, dimly lit corridor, with a handheld camera trailing him—this image, played out by several different patients in an unnamed Chinese psychiatric ward, recurs periodically throughout Wang Bing’s new documentary film ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013). Wang and cameraman Liu Xianhui rarely leave the floor of this institution, remaining instead in close observation of the men and absorbing the rhythms of their daily lives. The resulting footage depicts a realm largely beyond the purview of any doctor or staff member. Throughout the film the men strive to take advantage of the limited personal and private space available to them with each other’s help—whether wandering through the asylum as friends, confidantes, and makeshift family members or as partners folded into embracing pairs in close quarters off to the corridor’s sides, dreaming of past and present loved ones within small rectangular beds.

’Til Madness screened in São Paulo during the city’s annual Indie Festival as part of a complete Wang retrospective, giving audiences occasion to witness the forty-six-year-old filmmaker’s greater project of registering the complexities of modern marginal lives. His camera stays at a careful middle distance from its subjects—whether factory workers and their families (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks [2003]), rural village dwellers (Three Sisters [2012]), or former Cultural Revolution prisoners (Fengming, a Chinese Memoir [2007] and The Ditch [2010])—over extended periods of time, drawing viewers into empathy with their human condition. The people in Wang's films are always first defined within bounded social circumstances and then shown claiming the maximum amount of freedom that they can find within them.

Along with a sampling of recent European festival prizewinners, American independent films, and experimental works from around the world, the Indie (organized by the film distributor Zeta Filmes) always presents at least two contemporary auteur retrospectives. The 2013 edition contrasted Wang’s realist maneuvers with the creations of sensual fantasist Jean-Claude Brisseau. For over three decades now, the sixty-nine-year-old French sorcerer—known most widely for the “sex trilogy” of Secret Things (2002), The Exterminating Angels (2006), and The Adventure (2008)—has periodically offered variations on the same basic tale, in which a male intellectual teaches a woman to spiritually and sexually liberate herself, whereupon she becomes powerful enough to destroy him. Throughout, audiences are led to grapple with different possible interpretations of the films’ richly photographed, amply orchestrated parade of naked torsos, psychoanalysis lectures, and occasional murders. Brisseau’s detractors often dismiss him as a misogynist exploiting the female body, while his champions frequently exalt him as a subversive mocking the male gaze.

This writer believes Brisseau to be more of the latter, without necessarily admiring him for it. With that said, I find his latest film, The Girl from Nowhere (2012), very moving for the ways in which the filmmaker implicates himself within his practice’s typical fantasies and visions, suggesting them to be his own. Brisseau himself stars in the film as a shy, solitary writer named Michel—a longhaired fat giant tucked into neat, tight-fitting clothes—who one day discovers a young woman named Dora (Virginie Legeay) lying bruised and bloodied outside his front door. As he cares for her, he grows to believe that she is his long-dead wife’s reincarnation and pleads with her to keep him company. Their conversations (filmed entirely within Brisseau’s own apartment) are occasionally disrupted by quick flashes of demonic assailants along with premonitions of Michel’s inevitable death, with Dora herself coming to seem like a phantom harbinger. Michel initially resists the thought of leaving the world prematurely before Dora eventually helps him turn to greet his approaching afterlife with sad acceptance—and even, quite possibly, love.

Through finding humanity within the shadows of madness and death, both ’Til Madness Do Us Part and The Girl from Nowhere come to feel as though they are tenderly cradling lives at the edge of abyss. So do two other films that screened at this year’s Indie. The Spaniard Albert Serra’s Story of My Death (2013) presents a destructive encounter between Casanova and Count Dracula in static digital frames that flicker barely beyond complete blackness, as though these images contained the embers of a dying era. By contrast, the South Korean filmmaker O Meul’s Jiseul (2012) is a sharp, bright black-and-white re-creation of the 1948 experiences of 120 Jeju Island natives, who were deemed to be communists by the Korean army and hid in caves to delay their slaughter. By seeing and presenting its actors clearly—even within darkness—the film briefly revives the dead.

The 2013 Indie Festival ran September 6–12 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and September 20–October 3 in São Paulo.