‘Til Madness Do Us Part Observes a “New World and Freedom” of Confined Lives

TIL MADNESS DO US PART 05_Image courtesy Icarus Films

On June 9, ’Til Madness Do Us Part 《疯爱》 by Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing (王兵) will have its North American premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

Most famous for West of the Tracks 《铁西区》, an epic nine-hour documentary about a dying industrial district in northeast China which was once a model for the socialist economy, Wang is critically acclaimed for chronicling present-day lives of individuals.  In his documentaries, time is an important element in the observation of a certain space, and how the people within that space live and interact with each other — for a month or their whole lives — is meticulously and brilliantly assembled to provide great intimacy between the subjects and audiences.

’Til Madness Do Us Part continues this unique style, and this time, the camera is turned to a closed space — an isolated mental institution in the rural area of southwest China’s Yunnan province.  Here in the facility, life is simple: around 50 male inmates are incarcerated in one floor of a building, four — sometimes more — share a dorm room with a small window high up on the wall, and when not sleeping, they mope “outside” in a perimeter walkway fenced with iron bars that reach from the ground to the ceiling.  Some have been here for more than ten years, and some for a just few days, but once they are in, they gradually they get used to life inside.  Few can expect to get out.

'Til Madness Do Us Part', Courtesy of Icarus Films

Following the inmates, the camera wanders around in and out the rooms and the hallway.  Close up shots at low positions catch the inmate’s facial expressions as they enjoy cigarette butts in bed.  Shaky long shots follow a subject circling around the hallway in dim light on a cold winter night, sweaty and aimless.  Such rough and intimate scenes throughout the entire film bring the audiences up close to the emotional moments.  We see men eating, sleeping, and smoking, and the occasional family visits and romances with female inmates from other floors.

However, even in four hours, the film does not show every aspect of life in that building.   When the inmates began exhibiting signs of madness, became physically ill, or hit the crew, the director turned the camera away out of respect.  The director said in one interview, “I absolutely cannot film.  That is one part of their suffering, and I don’t want to film when they are in pain.”  This raises the controversy of whether the documentary is filtered to raise compassion as it only shows the inmates’ relatable sides and behavior.

Although the director does not explicitly show why the inmates are there, hints of political disagreements with local authorities and other non-mental health reasons can be easily spotted.  No matter why they are there, the director manages to focus on their capacities for happiness through the repetition of daily life in that building.  Scenes showing the men’s flirtations with women and their fights with their families during visits followed by the sharing of fruit brought by their families with other inmates capture connections and moods of love.

“There is no freedom in this hospital,” Wang states.  “But when people are locked inside a closed space, with iron fences and no freedom, they are capable of creating a new world and freedom between them, without morality or behavioral restrictions.”  Such a message by the director also leaves the audience to question their lives outside of the institution.  What is freedom? What kind of freedom do we need?  Is it madness or love that make us part?

’Til Madness Do Us Part screens at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Avenue, from June 9 – 15.   The 7:15 pm screening on Saturday, June 11 will be introduced by film critic Aaron Cutler.  His film Three Sisters 《三姊妹》, also shot in Yunnan province, screens at Spectacle Theatre on June 8, 7 PM; June 21, 7 PM, and June 26, 7:30 PM.

Photos courtesy of Icarus Films

The article was updated to better reflect the director’s comment about not showing the inmates’ suffering.