“Til Madness Do Us Part”
Inside an Asylum
Director Wang Bing looks at the inmates of an isolated mental institution in rural Zhaotong. Within the facility’s gates, the patients are confined to locked floors of a single building. Once locked on that floor and with little contact from the outside world, anything goes.
The inmates have been committed for different reasons but once inside, they all share the same life and cramped living quarters and they look for comfort and warmth. We see mental illness and criminality, therapy and incarceration, and the relationship between individuals and society in this riveting, terrifying, surprising and tender documentary portrait that viewers will not soon forget. The inmates are the abused and neglected from China’s darkest corners.
There are endurance tests and the daily tedium and long-term despair of life in a mainland mental hospital. For about 20 of its four-hour length, we are in one cell where almost nothing happens. Overall we have entered 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 of these have been imprisoned for as long as 10 or 12 years.
The camera captures the crowded hall where the men stand around chatting with each other or muttering to themselves and given medication 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 do not seem to be aware of the camera’s presence, but then they don’t seem particularly aware of anything. Because of this, some may find this a hard film to watch. There are those who walk around naked and while Wang tries to give his subjects a sense of dignity, we realize the ethical questions that arise.
We see one of the men relieving himself wherever he pleases and as we see the passage of time and sheer repetitiveness of existence. It seems that we are not seeing people but the shells of who they once were. They live in a world of their own creation and have been their own ways 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.
How and why these men ended up here is a mystery. I understand that some of them have killed, while others are simple outsiders whose local government. The fact that such details are not included in the film such details strengthen Wang’s silent observational approach that a large number of people lose a sense of humanity. It is shocking to see that some of the men have been put there because they have grown too old, too slow and too difficult for their families to take care of them any longer.
At 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. His sense of freedom is brief but staggering, throwing the oppressiveness of the incomprehensible for us to understand.
Wang had long been interested in filming a psychiatric hospital and after visiting one the place, he granted permission to shoot inside the hospital for two weeks in May of 2012. Even with the uniqueness of the physical space, there are no establishing shots of the hospital. All we really know about the inmates are their names and how long they are confined.