Mad World

Nick Pinkerton on Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part

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

’TIL MADNESS DO US PART is a movie in constant motion, with nowhere at all to go—at times the handheld camera seems literally to be bouncing off of the walls. Even when the frame is still, in the background there are always bodies in listless traffic, shuffling along on their fixed paths. We can infer that we are inside a madhouse; indeed, a closing text specifically informs us that Wang Bing’s documentary was shot between January and April of 2013 at a mental institution in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China. Save for a brief interlude, the action is entirely kept within the walls of the asylum. The male inmates, with whom the film generally stays, are mostly confined to one floor of the building, but otherwise seem to be left free to wander about as they please, though the options are limited to the bare dormitory cells that they inhabit; the television room where they congregate; and the “corridors” where they line up single-file to receive their medications, wash themselves in a running tap, and wander like restless half-ghosts through sleepless nights. The film is some ways along when the first daytime shots reveal that the walkway is built around an open courtyard, and that there’s nothing to protect the residents from the elements at all.

Day and night are otherwise much the same here, as the medicated, semicatatonic residents never seem fully awake or asleep, in a constant state of killing time and waiting for the relief of an unconsciousness that never comes. Sleep is talked about and exhorted constantly—“Best get some sleep and stay out of trouble,” “Calm down and go to sleep,” “Go to sleep, there’s no point in crying,” or some variation thereof a continual refrain—but real, restorative rest never comes. The inmates lie down, stand up, sit down, pace around, shout, squabble, bellyache, slurp instant noodles, hoard and gobble treats brought by relatives, squat, smoke, shit, piss wherever they happen to be, and pray toward Mecca if they are Muslim, which more than a handful are. (That closing text suggests that institutionalization is a catchall way of taking care of potential dissidents and troublemakers of all sorts.) On-screen text identifies the inmates by their names and the length of their confinement, and the rollcall continues through the considerable length of the film. Some characters we get to know rather well, like the father who asks his visiting wife for news of his young child. (“He can say ‘Daddy hit me,’” she says. “Oh, he remembers me,” he replies.) There is never quiet, but always a steady murmur of creaking doors, conspiratorial giggling, snatches of broken folk song, and horked-up loogies. Any sexual distinctions have fallen away—one middle-aged inmate pitches woo at a woman on the floor reserved for females below, though more frequently we see men routinely sharing cots with one another, either for warmth or for the pleasure of physical contact. The Chinese title, Feng Ai, translates literally to something like “Crazy Love,” or “Amour fou.”

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

’Til Madness Do Us Part first appeared in fall of 2013 at the Venice Film Festival. It will be having a weeklong run in New York at Anthology Film Archives thanks to distributor Icarus Films, who are concurrently presenting screenings of Wang’s 2012 Three Sisters at the Spectacle Theater. Wang’s films haven’t enjoyed wide theatrical release in the US, and it’s not altogether difficult to see why. They have sprawling runtimes—Madness is 227 minutes, and his 2002 breakthrough West of the Tracks comes in north of nine hours—and are the sort of thing that any honest assessment would file under “difficult” viewing. That said, it is almost imperative to see his latest in a cinema setting; in the comfort of home, the temptation to hit the release valve would be too great. Madness is a thing to be witnessed all at a go, not to say endured, and its power is very much wrapped up in its ability to hold the viewer captive. In the course of the film landmark events come and go—the release of a long-term inmate, the fireworks of New Year—and with each of these comes a glimmer of hope for respite, for something to change, but we always return to the same thing, the same pattern, to pacing the halls. At first the film is jarring, raw, frightening; then, desensitized by repetition, the shocking becomes routine, and one squirms at the recurrence of familiar scenes, which seem to add nothing to what we’ve already learned, though of course they do by the mere fact of their repetition; finally, there is a sort of passive acceptance.

When the credits rolled I was actually shaken, for after so much time in the booby hatch you begin to accept this world as the only one, to almost feel that this movie has become your life now, just circling, circling, circling, and that whatever else you had going on before is just a distant afterthought. This dull acceptance is the mindset that the prisoner settles into, and it is the measure of Wang’s brutalizing accomplishment that he acclimates you the viewer until you almost begin to understand it physically, in your very guts. Several recent Chinese documentaries have adopted an apocalyptic grandiosity—I am thinking in particular of Zhao Liang’s view of the Mongolian minefields as a tour of the infernal regions in his Behemoth (2015)—but ’Til Madness Do Us Part is all the more grueling because its purgatory is so doggedly prosaic, even mundane. There might be some consolation or elevation in the mythic dimension, but Wang’s movie takes place nowhere else but here and on earth.

’Til Madness Do Us Part runs Friday, June 10 through Wednesday, June 15 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.