You don’t watch prolific doc-master Wang Bing’s new film about a Chinese mental hospital so much as get imprisoned within it, pacing its dingy corridors and rooms like a zoo animal.
At thirteen minutes shy of four hours, this observational portrait of a grim cultural reality is undoubtedly a challenge to any viewer’s serotonin levels, but it’s not harrowing in the kind of Titicut Follies way you might expect. Wang makes long, patient, outraged movies about poverty and deprivation (like 2010’s The Ditch and 2008’s fourteen-hour Crude Oil) intended to sit you down and make you empathetic to the suffering if it kills you, and this ordeal is more about the waste of stasis and neglect than abuse.
The Yunnan-province hospital — little more than a series of identical cement-walled rooms looking out onto a quadrangle, like a Marriott Courtyard in Purgatory — limits medical treatment to daily tranqs, so the inmates, whether they’re bipolar, mentally retarded, sociopathic, or merely inconvenient for the state, all shamble around in the same numb cloud of inertia. (Since this is China, they’re used to waiting and pointless suppression.)
Moments of drama pierce through the fog, like the through-the-bars visitation scene between a humiliated father and his worried daughter, reaching a teary tension amid the other inmates kibitzing and asking her to bring food next time. One patient gets a day’s leave, but his parents’ squalid shack (complete with faded Mao portrait) is even drearier than the hospital. Heavy on routine and light on context (how each man arrived to where he is usually remains a mystery), Wang’s film certainly makes you feel the time and place, with a vengeance.
‘Til Madness Do Us Part
Directed by Wang Bing
Anthology Film Archives, June 9–15