One can’t talk about Wang Bing’s documentary ‘Til Madness Do Us Part without first mentioning its length. Being nearly four hours long, Wang’s documentary on a mental institution in southwestern China can be an uncomfortable watch most of the time, both because of its subject matter and its daunting length. Filmed from January to April in 2012, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part patiently tracks the daily lives of male patients in a mental hospital in Yunnan province. By watching the film, the viewer can begin to gain an understanding of what being imprisoned in such a facility feels like. For four hours, we are also trapped in our seats, subject to the tedium, listlessness, and torpidity that many of the subjects in the film have experienced for years. As a viewer, I find myself torn between two interpretations, one espousing the director’s longform representation as a painfully effective way to do its subject matter justice, and the other viewpoint believing that the film’s running time is too trying for its own good.
Filmed mostly in the quarters and barricaded galleries of the mental hospital, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part follows the inmates as they go about their daily lives, a life which revolves around aimless rambling and sleeping. “Sleeping is what we can afford most now,” one patient proclaims to another. Indeed, a great part of the film seems to involve itself with the subject of sleep as sleep is frequently used as an anodyne by both the doctors and more veteran patients as they coax or coerce the more ungovernable inmates into acceptable behaviour. “Go to sleep” is a recourse frequently reiterated throughout the film, a nostrum that is supposed to divert the patients from the absurdity of their predicaments. In the film, there is a sequence that shows a patient admonishing his groggy and slack-jawed roommate for acting like a zombie because of his medication. Ironically, after he chastises his roommate for his sluggish behaviour, what he tries to cajole the other patient into doing is going to sleep. Like the drugs the doctors prescribe, sleep in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part has become an alleviative that fixes nothing but which manages to delay the disquietude the patients suffer for a little while longer.
A sort of listless lethargy dominates the mood of the film, and only very sporadically is the viewer granted more animated sequences that provide respite from the insularity of the patients’ normal routines. Many of the more lively and simultaneously heartrending sequences in the film are the ones that focus on the patient’s interactions with their family and their pleadings with their family members to release them from the institution. Since the film is set against the backdrop of Chinese New Year, a time when families are supposed to reunite together to celebrate the advent of the new year, the patients’ entreaties towards their families stand out as moments of compelling pathos in a film that largely refrains from being too didactic in its criticism towards China’s mental institution system, a system that has allowed people to be committed not just for mental imbalance, but also for causes of disability and infirmity or sometimes just because their family have found them too troublesome to live with.
‘Til Madness Do Us Part may have opted for a quieter, more observational stylistic in its framing of the subject matter, but it’s safe to say that its critique of China’s psychiatric institutions remains no less potent, mostly due to the director’s uncompromising desire to fully immerse the viewers in the constricted, claustrophobic environment of the mental ward. And ultimately, the film may be a punishing watch, but its veracity is to be commended and its subjects to be remembered.
‘Ti Madness Do Us Part is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.