Although ’Til Madness Do Us Part was the chosen title for the English release, its original title, Feng Ai (疯爱), more accurately translates to “madness” and “love”. After facing Wang Bing’s latest epic, it’s confusing as to why the documentary wasn’t given such a title as the two words are perfectly summative of the experience that ’Til Madness Do Us Part depicts. Almost the entirety of the documentary is set in the sole location of a municipal mental asylum in China, though over four hours it begins to share far more similarities with a prison.
“2 months”, “10 years”, “20 years” and other periods of time far harder to fathom than “4 hours” are assigned to the various inhabitants of the asylum as they are appear in the film. They are introduced through achingly raw footage of their daily lives, without a word over the course of the film emerging from Bing’s mouth, as he exists as something of a fly on the wall. His absence throughout the film allows for an intimacy few documentaries achieve with their subjects, and Bing’s ability to do it in a way that fails to violate or disrespect those inside the asylum is a mark of rare sort of a documentarian. That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions to be asked about his approach. There isn’t an explicit consent shown by any of the figures being filmed, and considering the state many of them are in, this is something that should be looked at to some extent. That said, the inhabitants never express a sense of discomfort or confusion at the fact they are being filmed; what eventuates is difficult to sit through at times, painful and draining, but overwhelmingly something that should be seen. Bing has removed himself from the documentary to a degree that often leaves the viewer forgetting that what they are watching is far from fiction. When this reality resurges throughout the film, the strength of the documentary resounds.
Throughout the documentary, the audience is placed in the daily lives of those within the asylum as they spent most of their time in their rooms in conversation with one another. Few are visited by family members, although the option exists; showing the degree to which many in the documentary have been completely abandoned. One character is visited by his wife several times throughout – and these scenes are often the most telling, heartbreaking and frustrating moments of the film. She brings him food on one occasion, his son on another, and plays a song on her phone on another. The song is met with an unwavering sense of pain from the man, who repeatedly asks his wife to turn off the music, which she ignores – laughing. The complexities of ’Til Madness Do Us Part emerge from scenes like these, where the stories these two figures shared outside of the asylum absent; only an inconclusive present. The man constantly begs his wife to take him out of the asylum; something the documentary implies is within her power, yet she always refuses. Bing doesn’t discuss what the man has done to end up in such a place, and the audience are forced to empathise with him due to their lack of knowledge of his life outside. His wife comes across as cruel and persistent, yet it’s never forgotten that this is simply a shallow snapshot above what is likely a far deeper and distressing story.
Wang Bing presents the characters who emerge over the course of the film as intricate and beautiful; from the constantly joyous Wu Shensong, or Chen Zhengxiang – admitted to the facility halfway through the film – Bing takes the documentary to a length few directors would go near because it is the only way to respect the stories and complexities of those he has chosen to film. None are ever written off as simple or peripheral characters; he pursues them, and develops a sense of intimacy over the four hours that few documentaries similar to ’Til Madness have ever achieved.
There is madness in Bing’s film; human beings imprisoned for decades, being forced to take ten pills a day before returning to their bedrooms – paint falling off the walls, with beds crammed against one another, their only freedom existing in a common room and the hallway that surrounds the bedroom. The conditions that Bing films are inhumane and frightening, and there’s a glaringly obvious question being asked: how can living in a place like this help someone? At the same time as this, however, there is always a presence of love in the documentary. Whether it’s the platonic sense of care between the inhabitants of the facility, the sense of loss in their contact with the outside world, or the intimate connection that Bing allows the audience to feel with the subjects of the film. The final scene in the documentary is perhaps its most powerful, as a man and a woman hold one another through a set of bars separating the male and female sections of the facility. The scene occurs in silence besides their minimal dialogue – often inaudible or untranslated – and goes for several minutes. Nothing needs to be said. These are two human beings, imprisoned rather than hospitalised, seeking out something as primordial and taken for granted as love. After spending four hours with Wang Bing in the facility, it’s easy to feel exhausted and emotionally drained. It doesn’t take long for the reality that faces the human beings in the documentary to set in. It’s a pain a lot longer than that; and Bing’s ability to remind the viewer of these values is one of of his rare skills that continues to leave him as one of the worlds most lauded documentary makers.
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