J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part

Perhaps you always suspected Chinese mental hospitals were not very hospitable. If so, your suspicions have been definitively vindicated by documentarian Wang Bing’s nearly four hour descent into the everyday lunacy of a decrepit facility located somewhere in the southwest provinces. Tellingly, the inmates often joke this place will “drive you crazy.” The same might be said for viewers, but there is no denying the weightiness and immediacy of Wang’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, which screens tomorrow as part of MoMA’s 2014 Documentary Fortnight.

Yes, some of the patients/inmates/prisoners have been committed for being politically difficult. However, they have been mixed in with killers, hardcore schizophrenics, and slightly loony relatives someone wanted to get out of the house. Unlike bad old Soviet psychotherapy, the doctors are not constantly poking and prodding the patients. In fact, staff members are rarely seen throughout the course of a day. Think Lord of the Flies instead of 1984. Frankly, it is like Bedlam in there.

Throughout most of the film, Wang and his fellow cameraman Liu Xianhui are confined to the top men’s floor of the facility.  The layout not so coincidently resembles a prison, with a central corridor overlooking the interior courtyard.  Viewers will become quite familiar with this fenced in passageway, because Wang and Liu will pursue many a disturbed patient as they go tearing around and around it.

Obviously, there are many issues with this sanatorium, starting first and foremost with the conspicuous lack of resources. The level of care is also problematic, mainly consisting of the daily dispensing of happy pills, at least as far as viewers can tell. There is even a mute inmate whose identity remains a mystery to staff and patients alike. Right, what are the chances he will be cured of what troubles him?

Given the 228 minute running time, Wang can hardly be accused of selective editing. Madness is an immersive experience more than a muckraking expose. Yet, the micro and macro implications are inescapable. Nobody would want to be there. Yet, Wang still finds pockets of humanity in the bleakness, such as the man who has somehow commenced a romantic relationship with a woman confined to a lower floor, mostly through stolen conversations through barred doors and the like.

Everything about Madness will intimidate casual audiences, with good reason. Frankly, the best way to see it is probably as a reviewer, because we are able to break it down into manageable pieces. Nevertheless, Wang is arguably the leading Chinese documentary filmmaker of our day. Anyone who seriously follows independent Chinese cinema will want to keep up with latest. While not nearly as emotionally involving as his heartbreaking Three Sisters or the draining Fengming: a Chinese Memoir, it still has plenty of sobering moments. Recommended for stout-hearted cineastes, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part screens tomorrow (2/19), in all its 228 minute glory, as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

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