Wang Bing entered cinema history ten years ago on a freight train with a DV camera, filming from the driver’s window the snowy landscape of a disused industrial complex. At the end of the filming of West of the Tracks, the warehouses were already empty and even the workers who dismantled the lines were already gone. The last shot made them reappear as ghosts in the belly of the factory, in the act of washing themselves together after the workshift, as it was once. For a moment, the linear time of History left space for the circular time of memory. Already in that first film, Wang Bing had as the object of his cinema the totality of things and, as subject, individual characters in whom the peculiarity (particularity) of each one of them and the history of the country reciprocally define each other.
’Til Madness Do Us Part, presented out of competition [in Venice], was almost entirely filmed in a psychiatric hospital, in just three months. The institute, where people are interned at the request of the family, court or police, is located in a poor region of southwestern China, Yunnan, thousands of kilometers away from the Tiexi factories. Still, the impression of finding in the characters and places one more episode of the epic end of heavy state industry is strong and also, ten years later, an answer to the question: what has become of those workers now that the work is no more?
The building is on two floors. On the first, where we will not set foot, are the women. Wang Bing invites himself to the second, reserved for the men, with the same deceptive easiness with which he had entered the factories of Tiexi (his tactic is to not ask for any official authorisation, which would certainly be rejected). All the cells are open, like Chinese rural houses. Instead of the street there is a corridor that runs around the perimeter, overlooking the inner courtyard. From the railing up to the roof, an iron grid prevents the patients from throwing themselves into the void but allows them to make, from one floor to the other, sexual propositions that are as jaunty as they are impossible.
Here, where the patients camp, wash themselves, urinate, smoke, cuddle, or insult each other, we spend with them the most of the four hours of ’Til Madness Do Us Part. Despite being only part of the whole, the circular terrace metaphorically represents the whole psychiatric hospital and every mental illness. In one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie, a young patient runs the perimeter one, ten, twenty times, stopping from time to time, forcing himself to continue, as if the circle, instead of bringing him to the same exact spot, could lead him to the exit, once. Sometimes, it happens. Towards three quarters of the film, Zhu Xiaoyan, discharged, returns to his family. Wang Bing follows him. Even more isolated at home than in the hospital, Zhu wanders, as they say. Like a madman, through the countryside devastated by bricks and concrete, he disappears in the night, walking on a highway. You cannot leave the corridor; it embraces the whole country...
Everything, you know, is nothing. The patients in every psychiatric hospital in the world do not exist. Their identity is denied. They have no name. They are simply crazy. In Wang Bing’s cinema we meet two types of characters. Those who have no name, but who describe themselves through action, and those who have a name and act through words. Dumbed by medicines, the madmen of Wang Bing are deprived of the opportunity to tell their story. This is the main issue that the film tackles and solves.
The tool through which Wang Bing achieves this goal is time. Focusing on five or six characters, the film gives itself time to make them exist. And offers us – the audience – the time to get rid of the filters through which we are used to conceive images. Thought in terms of situations and meaning, the film could be edited into a 30 minutes version. It would be then a collection of pornographic images: a man who urinates, one who smokes the filter of a cigarette butt, one who swears because he has been abandoned, one that crushes imaginary flies, one that hugs a woman through a grid, two men that sleep in the same bed.
But Wang Bing does not film isolated actions. He tries to convey the language in which each character embodies a story. The four hours of the film flow easily because the duration is what the viewer needs, to stop judging and start looking. This is why Wang Bing does not introduce them immediately: the credits with their names (and the duration of their confinement) are a reward that comes only after we become familiar with the person in question. After a fair time, the time we need to start listening to them.
Originally published as ‘L’identità negate delle voci senza nome’ in Il manifesto, 6 September 2013.
Image from Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)