An unsparing chronicler of the abused and neglected in his country’s darkest corners, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing pushes his starkly immersive strategies to a grueling yet empathetic extreme in “’Til Madness Do Us Part.” There are endurance tests, and then there is this nearly four-hour plunge into the daily tedium and long-term despair of life in a mainland mental hospital, patrolling the same tightly enclosed quarters in a manner that seeks to reproduce, without compromise, an inhabitant’s sense of physical, mental and spiritual entrapment. Following a few shorter, comparatively accessible outings with his 2010 drama “The Ditch” and his 2012 docu “Three Sisters,” this purposeful yet punishing work will appeal strictly to Wang’s most committed devotees on the fest and gallery circuits; bathroom breaks are advised for a film that, among other things, compels viewers to tell time by how often its subjects urinate.
For all but about 20 of its daunting 228 minutes, Wang’s documentary confines the viewer to one of the upper stories of an isolated asylum in southwest China. (Somewhat surprisingly, the director and his small crew were granted access after having been denied permission to film at a different institution near Beijing.) What we see is a painfully finite world of grimy, bare-walled rooms lining an outdoor corridor that overlooks an open courtyard below, with metal bars in place to prevent anyone from trying to climb down or jump. The building is home to about 100 men, some of whom are identified onscreen by name and length of confinement. Many have been imprisoned for as long as 10 or 12 years, a fact that comes to seem ever more unfathomable as the film stretches onward.
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With endless patience, the camera (Wang and Liu Xianhui served as lensers) roams the sometimes empty, sometimes crowded hall where the men stand around idly by day, chatting with each other or muttering to themselves, and occasionally receiving pills from the hospital staff. The filmmakers slip regularly into the men’s quarters, where they sleep about four to a room, and sometimes two to a bed. They seem barely aware of the camera’s presence, which might be a testament to Wang’s ability to foster trust and intimacy with his subjects, were it not for the fact that they don’t seem particularly aware of anything.
This apparent obliviousness to the presence of strangers can make for uncomfortable viewing, especially when some are shown walking around naked; for all Wang’s principled efforts to lend dignity to his human subjects, these instances can’t help but raise ethical questions about the privacy these presumably mentally disturbed individuals are entitled to. If there’s a structuring motif here, it’s the recurring sight of a person casually relieving himself wherever he pleases — in a corner of the room, or on the floor outside. As a means of marking the passage of time and conveying the sheer repetitiveness of existence, it doesn’t get much more elemental.
“’Til Madness Do Us Part” is a ghost story of sorts; we don’t seem to be observing people so much as the shells their souls have left behind. And it gradually becomes clear that these apparitions are inhabiting a world of their own creation, one in which they have evolved their own forms of social exchange. At times they huddle together in their beds for warmth and companionship; two men, one younger than the other, express unabashed physical affection for each other in one of the film’s most tender moments. In another scene, a man standing outside carries on a flirtation with a woman on the floor below, a world that remains otherwise off-limits to the camera.
Why these men ended up here remains a mystery. The production materials note that some of them have killed, while others “are simply outsiders, forsaken by the local government for having upturned the rules.” The decision to omit such details — in keeping with Wang’s silent observational approach, unspoiled by context or commentary — serves only to strengthen his tacit critique of a system that seems so undiscriminating in its mistreatment of such a large swathe of humanity.
Saddest of all is the realization that some of the men have been dumped here simply because they have grown too old, too slow and too difficult for their families to take care of them any longer. The meaning of the film’s title, with its twist on traditional marriage vows, becomes most apparent when one patient scowls his way through a visit from his wife and son, a scene that quietly sketches in their long-broken family dynamics. Elsewhere, a man pleads with a family member from behind bars, “I’m not crazy, get me out of here!” — a rare expression of hopeful defiance in a place where everyone else seems to have given up.
At almost exactly the three-hour mark, the camera unexpectedly follows a newly released inmate outside the building’s walls and follows him as he returns to his home village. The sense of freedom is brief but staggering, throwing the oppressiveness of the preceding 180 minutes into sharp relief. Although far shorter than Wang’s nine-hour landmark “West of the Tracks,” “’Til Madness Do Us Part” remains a long and largely undifferentiated slog through an earthly circle of hell, shot on low-grade digital cameras that find little beauty amid such squalor and gloom.
Those most on Wang’s wavelength would likely suggest that the denial of such consolations is exactly the point, and that one cannot begin to understand what his subjects have endured without entering wholly into their suffering. Yet as the hours roll slowly past, it’s hard not to feel that this epic achievement in monotonous misery might have retained its impact at a fraction of the length, and that even our grimmest truth-tellers might well find themselves capable of saying more with less.