‘Til Madness Do Us Part
Directed by Wang Bing
June 9-15 at Anthology Film Archives
A doorstopper of a documentary that goes inside a rural mental hospital starved for resources, Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part spends nearly all of its 228-minute runtime observing daily activity on the institution’s top floor. In this place—with its bare-walled dorms, regime of white-coat supervision, and prison-like layout—dozens of involuntarily committed men are kept under lock and key. There’s not room enough for anyone to stay self-conscious for long.
In their shared rooms, we see the men, some of whom have been here for more than a decade, dressing and undressing, urinating carelessly onto the concrete floor, and holding each other as they sleep two to a cot. The several individuals followed by Wang (identified on-screen simply by name and the length of time they’ve been institutionalized) have nothing to hide from the camera, then, because they can’t afford the luxury of hiding anything from one another.
From the outset, this place—to which Wang and a single collaborator (cameraman Liu Xianhui) managed to gain access for a few months around the 2013 Chinese New Year—appears a good deal more punitive than therapeutic. Metal bars line the top-floor hallway, which faces an inner courtyard that’s the patients’ only semblance of a view; the medical staff, meanwhile, dispenses a catchall medication that just seems to make everyone tired. “I’m not crazy, get me out of here,” wails a man as he’s forcibly admitted to the facility late one night. (The strongest resistance here comes from the newcomers.)
It is, of course, impossible to tell how much these particular inmates are overvaluing their own mental fitness (as they might well be wont to do), but for some of Wang’s subjects, at least, such statements are likely truer than not. In the closing credits, the filmmaker finally discloses what you suspect all along: that a mix of violent and nonviolent patients populate the institution, and the latter group includes people who’ve done nothing more than circulate political petitions.
Wang—whose last document of impoverished conditions in the far-southwestern Yunnan Province, the excellent family saga Three Sisters, ran a mere two and a half hours—certainly surrenders a lot of screen time here to simple routine, capturing it in a muddy HD that seems to underscore its very monotony. There is little to distinguish one day from the next. Patients pace the halls, hunt bugs on the wall, and try to win the attention of their female counterparts on the floor below. In a particularly befuddling sequence, one man quietly undresses as his roommates sleep, then rearranges the belongings on this bed, and lies down under his duvet—only to stand and get dressed again a minute later.
Indeed, ’Til Madness Do Us Part can be discomfiting as it marshals all this restless behavior toward an implicit indictment of the state, the official body ultimately responsible for lumping its most “inconvenient” citizens together and allowing its putative public services to devolve into total disrepair. Yet at the same time, the film has a perhaps even more powerful cumulative effect as record of fraternity in extremis.
One inmate’s wife (who had him committed in the first place) comes to visit, after the New Year, with a bag full of tangerines, fruit that the usually cantankerous man quite clearly enjoys handing out to his neighbors. At another point, a new arrival reassures his worried sister that he’s in safe company among the floor’s other residents—many of whom are huddling behind him in order to get in closer to the rare female visitor. As far as society at large is concerned, these men have all, in one way or another, lost the benefit of the doubt. But they’re still often willing to give it to each other.