“What is madness?” is the question never spoken, yet burdens Wang Bing’s brutal yet poignant documentary ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013). Shot entirely (with the exception of one short outing) within the excruciating confines of a municipal psychiatric hospital in Yunnan province, one of the poorest regions in rural China, Wang’s film is as bewildering and heartbreaking as it is insightful, in its depiction of the daily existence of the institution’s residents. No stranger to generous runtimes, Wang is best known for his nine-hour documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003), which draws out in three parts a eulogy to workers in a rapidly deindustrialising China.
Wang’s latest, which premièred at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is a mere 228 minutes, filmed over 45 days inside the men’s section of the institution. Slow, visually sparse and shot mostly in a series of long takes, the film manages to elevate above stagnation, justifying its length by prioritising residents’ interactions and routines with respectful deliberation. Silently following the men, Wang’s camera circles the damp corridors, queues for food and medication, and sits idly in crowded bedrooms. Each resident is introduced with only his name and duration of residency. With no individual back-stories we are left simply to observe, and it is here the question of madness arises. Are they mad? If not, then what possible reason could they have for being confined there completely against their will?
‘Til Madness Do Us Part began as a fictional script, but later became a documentary when Wang and cinematographer Liu Xianhui were granted filming access to the institution. Wang’s presence as film maker is neither seen nor heard, the impact of which is one of never feeling compromised by any guided judgement or motivation. The viewer is not granted access to the space outside the bars of the men’s second floor quadrangle, despite being exposed to the range of noises rising from the women’s floor below. Glimpses of family visits also suggest that the outside world we do not see, may be just as cruel. It is here the film transcends from observation into meditation, hinting at a society that wishes to hide people, rather than help.
A sense of hopelessness is channelled through the institution’s medical staff, viewed from the perspective of the residents as nameless figures of authority. Suspicions of prison-like confinement are somewhat confirmed in the film’s closing statement; a brutally sombre title card claiming that whilst some of the men are institutionalised for mental illness, some had been incarcerated for murder, some for merely having learning difficulties. All share the same space, and the same experience. The shock of this final confession leaves us with more questions than it does answers, and it is this desire to understand that’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part’s achievement.
Til Madness Do Us Part featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here.