Film Review: 'Til Madness Do Us Part

Slow-moving, lengthy yet rarely boring, '’Til Madness Do Us Part' reveals the difficult life for the patients inside a psychiatric institution in Southwest China.
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Wang Bing’s four-hour documentary has been well regarded on festival circuits since 2013 and is finally now getting a U.S. release. Despite its deliberate pacing and extended duration, Til Madness Do Us Part manages to hold one’s attention. Yet here is another example of “direct cinema” peering into the lives of individuals who have little say about the intrusion. This built-in voyeurism will keep some viewers away, while others will appreciate Wang’s extraordinary access to his subject and skillful handling of his production.

During a marathon 228 minutes, we follow a handful of the male patients through the course of their days in this hospital located in the rural, remote Yunnan province. What is immediately apparent is how little these men are allowed or able to do in the drab, small, dirty dormitory rooms of the cramped upper floor of the building. (The female patients are on the lower floors, but neither we nor the men get to see them more than fleetingly.) This sad existence is documented by Wang in all its naturalistic tedium. In fact, the highlights of the day are when food arrives from orderlies, who barely interact with the patients, or the moments of literal release, when the men urinate, sometimes in places they shouldn’t—in rare moments of defiance. Perhaps because of the setting, where anything could happen, none of the day-to-day routines become tiresome, at least to the viewer; rather, a low-grade suspense develops.

What sets Madness apart from Frederick Wiseman’s exposé of substandard or downright cruel “medical” practices, Titicut Follies (1967), is that Wiseman’s breakthrough film was set in a Boston hospital in the mid-1960s, was enhanced by its chiaroscuro, horror-film-style black-and-white cinematography, and made its points in a much shorter running time. What the two projects share in a positive sense is a genuine empathy for the patients and an implicit and damning critique of dehumanizing state-run institutions: Following a ban and delayed release, Follies had the effect of reforming these kinds of hospitals throughout the U.S.; let’s hope Madness will produce similar results in China, however unlikely that will be in the near-future.

The conundrum of both films (and any number of cinéma-vérité docs about mentally unstable figures, including such classics as Portrait of Jason and Grey Gardens) is that a certain amount of exploitation is inevitable—for starters, showing the men in the nude. One gets an uneasy feeling during the more intimate moments, and all the more so because somehow Wang (like Wiseman) has been able to record these events before his camera without the people acknowledging the camera, though some restaging appears to have occurred. If one is able to get past this concern, Til Madness Do Us Part provides a unique glimpse into lives we otherwise would never see and the possibility of some kind of progressive social change down the line.

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