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Wang Bing's 'Til Madness Do Us Part:
An Apprenticeship in Seeing

Joseph Mai


Wang Bing has been patiently assembling a large body of challenging and original documentary films, beginning with his first major work, West of the Tracks (2003), a nine-hour epic tracking the destruction of the industrial district in the northern provincial capital Xi’an in China. His fiercely independent work has had very limited distribution, appearing mainly in film festivals or exhibition spaces, including an important exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 2014. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part was filmed in 2012, completed in 2013, but earlier this year received a very limited run in France. The reduced exposure is understandable: it may not be everyone’s idea of a good time to spend three hours and 47 minutes in a psychiatric hospital in a remote and impoverished region of southern China. However, for those willing to meet it on its own ground, the film is a profound work, and among the most rewarding contemporary documentary cinema has to offer.


Long interested in filming a psychiatric hospital, Wang was first able to visit the facility in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part early in 2012. He was surprisingly granted permission to shoot inside the hospital for two weeks in May of that year, with one assistant, before convincing the hospital director to allow him two and a half months. The hospital’s architecture is unique: a square building, three or four stories tall, it is composed of a series of cells or rooms organised around a central courtyard. The doors of the cells open onto a walkway overlooking the courtyard and protected by vertical bars. Inmates walk around, visit the toilets or the television room, sit on a bench overlooking the courtyard, or walk in and out of each other’s rooms. One floor below is the women’s ward, and below that the space occupied by doctors and offices. Other than mealtimes, the men must remain on their floor; genders only mix in the courtyard where everyone eats sitting on the ground. Much time is spent in the small bedroom cells in which a single bulb, placed in the centre of the ceiling, illuminates the few objects the men encounter: three or four beds, plastic chamber pots (almost nobody uses the toilets), old clothes, some dirty bed covers, cigarettes, and a bit of graffiti.


Despite the uniqueness of the physical space, there are no establishing shots of the hospital, and Wang’s relatively wide aspect ratio makes the image, at times, rather out of joint with the building’s vertical lines, as when the narrow confines of the walkway mean that the bars slice through half the image, cutting off the space forbidden to the inmates beyond the bars. On the other hand, the frame aims at a much greater harmony with the men whose lives Wang wants to show. The wide screen captures perfectly, for instance, the length of a bed that one or more of the inmates sleeps in, or parts of two beds that show the interaction between two men. Inside the cells, the camera is often close enough that physical borders disappear and the men fill the frame entirely, as in a portrait. Even more noticeably the camera moves with the men, following them through cell doors, around the walkway, wherever they go and whatever they do. Space plays an important role, but the faces and bodies break free from the architectural confines.


It is not possible to settle on a single term for describing the men: prisoners, inmates, interns or patients. A brief text at the end of the film gives an idea of the many different reasons for their incarceration. Some genuinely suffer from mental illness. Others are intellectually disabled. Some are simply stressed for economic or personal reasons. Some are violent criminals. Others are political prisoners. They are all committed involuntarily, by the government or their own families. Some of the latter hope that their husbands, fathers or sons will improve, but many of the men have been forgotten for decades and are likely to spend the greater part of their lives there. They call the facility a ‘hospital’ and their cells ‘rooms’, but the borders between hospital, asylum and prison are highly permeable in this multi-use warehouse for depositing the poor who are also socially, culturally and politically intolerable.


We have enough information about individual inmates to know that their incarceration is linked to outside forces: to family lives, economic conditions, even to political dynamics. At the same time, Wang himself explains that, though he admits that his subjects are always ‘linked to power’, he is not a ‘dissident’ or ‘political filmmaker’. This seems to me a good description. The main work of Wang’s cinema, the reason it is lamentable that his films are difficult to access, is not the political point that he is making, but the cinematic apprenticeship of viewing these men’s lives in this prison, through frames, movement, sound and light. At the same time, there is no flight from politics, as Wang reminds us that the images are anchored in a world that includes ourselves, no matter where we are from. We know that such places exist; Wang brings us into one.


This intimacy is perhaps the biggest emotional hurdle for viewers, for what we see is often disturbing. The inmates are all suffering: they wander around the walkway in all states of vulnerability: naked, catatonic, occasionally violent, grunting, hallucinating, groping, smoking, crying, peeing, despairing, in pain. The framing emphasises the strangeness of their lives simply by adapting to it, as in shots that tightly frame the bed shared by two men, both naked under the covers, with a head jutting out at each end. The images are often filmed at night, with that light single bulb. But the distinction between day and night hardly exists: people lay in bed all day, walk around all night. The camera is stuck in an insomniac state, recording people acting strangely at all times of day and night. This will repel viewers, including many who will ultimately be sympathetic to Wang’s work, until they are ready to see as Wang sees them.


Nor does Wang explain things beyond minimal intertitles that give only the names of the inmates and the duration of their confinement. His seemingly indifferent attitude toward viewers is actually rooted in a respect for and challenge to their ability to look differently. In an interview about West of the Tracks, Wang is asked a fairly obvious question about ‘anticipating resistance’ from his audience. His answer is confidently dismissive:


  Resistance? I never thought about such things. If you want to make a film, you have to work on it, to realise your plan from start to finish. For me, my job is to get things done. It didn't involve much exploration of the language of presentation and representation. It was mainly the actual work, practical matters on a daily basis. I didn't have much difficulty getting into the factories, making friends with workers, and so on. That was all quite simple. The most difficult part of filmmaking is money. You need to shoot every day, to manage a mass of details every day. The work required a continuous input of material resources. Basically my friends and my family supported me. (1)  




1. ‘Interview with Wang Bing,’ New Left Review, no. 82 (July-August 2013).

In other words, Wang seems to have figured out his approach. He will make the movie he wants to make, in spaces one does not usually film, by making friends with the people who operate there. Handwringing over the viewer’s ‘safe zone’ would only distract from this project. The interviewer, surprised, repeats the question, to which Wang replies that he does not think about the box-office when making his films.


So we are left to our own devices, forced to understand these difficult images only by adapting to the manner of seeing they propose to us. In a remarkable introduction to Wang’s The Nameless Man (2011), the art theorist Georges Didi-Huberman argues that Western culture is conditioned to quickly engage in a critical attitude to artistic phenomena. The critical attitude cultivates a ‘sovereignty of the I of knowledge’ over the object of critique. (2) This ‘style of thinking’ is usually warranted but, at times, Didi-Huberman claims, as in Wang’s work, the critical attitude must allow for ‘confidence’ or ‘trust’. In fact, this may necessitate a critical stance towards oneself as an autonomous subject, seeing, feeling and knowing an object. Watching Wang’s work will require that most of us unlearn such habitual modes of viewing, and trust in Wang’s vision: as Didi-Huberman puts it, to say ‘yes’ to what one sees (even if it means saying ‘no’ to one’s past ways of seeing).


Assenting to these images means that we must admit that the inmates are as fully human as we are. In order to do so, however, we must also acknowledge that the path of identification runs both ways: if they are human like us, then we are also human like them. We too have bodies that can be exposed, minds whose wires can be scrambled, economic and political lives that are more precarious than we care to imagine. The dominant emotion felt by the viewer before this film is not claustrophobia, disgust or pity, but vertigo. Saying ‘yes’ to this film requires us to face our own vulnerability.

  2. Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Hors-je, L’homme sans nom, Centre Pompidou.

It is then that we realise that Wang’s camera, all along, has never been pointed at these men in an arbitrary or indifferent way: it has been gently moving from the beginning, framing and reframing them so we can see them better, assuming a human point of view. The camera has simply been following, often quite literally, and the movements and pace guide those of the film. Didi-Huberman plays on the French use of suivre, meaning both ‘follow’ and ‘understand’, but the same metaphorical play holds in English. To understand we must follow the inmates in their place, at their pace, and in everything they do and everything that happens to them. With one limit, according to Wang: ‘On the other hand, I refuse to film them when they are suffering. I won’t allow my camera to put someone in difficulty’. (3) In a film of so many intimate images, Wang is remarkably discreet. One man, extremely distressed but as sane as most people, finds himself locked up against his will. He calls out hauntingly: ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy’. We see this. But as he begins to cry, looks at the camera, and walks away, the camera does not follow. Pissing, caressing, empty-eyed staring, exposed genitalia: these do not necessarily demean. But a camera can multiply suffering with shame.


Wang’s search for the proper ethical distance leads to admirably free and inventive improvisation, driven by curiosity and extreme sensitivity. There is no script, only an adventure with a camera and microphone, into the unknown of the asylum. A new arrival, a young hyper-energetic man who wants to break free of the prison, announces that he is going to run around the walkway surrounding the courtyard. Michael Guarneri perceptibly notices a slight hesitation before the camera makes to move after him. (4) It is as if, in that split second, Wang (or his partner) has weighed the possibility that following could be wrong, that the inmate may be trying to get away from the camera. He then decides, on the contrary, that this is all part of the game, and the young man wants to race (the end of the sequence shows this to have been a good judgment). To follow is just the first stylistic implication of this ethical and aesthetic adventure: taking off in this unexpected way also requires the cameraman to seek out a view of the running man extremely quickly, to adjust his angle on the fly and constantly reframe the action.




3. Samuel Douhaire, Wang Bing: “Je ne voulais surtout pas présenter les fous comme des êtres différents”’,, 11 March 2015.  




4. Michael Guarneri, ‘“I am just a simple individual who films what he loves to film”: Interview with Wang Bing’, La furia umana, no. 22 (2014).

The filmmaker’s single-minded efforts are rewarded with striking revelations. No matter how marginal or absurd the men’s existence may at first seem, the more we reflect upon these images the more each portrait reveals a broader, richer, and more complex human experience than we had expected. Sometimes the subtle references to the men’s outside lives provide this meaning. In one scene, we are introduced to a man who, having refused to get out of bed or change his clothes, receives a visit from his wife. We see her nagging and him bickering, even taking a swipe at her but, when she brings oranges for him to share with other inmates, we also sense a deeper commitment and affection from both.


We also realise that some inmates can attain a complex affective life that resembles an alternative ‘normalcy’ even within the hospital walls. This is the case of the most marginal of the inmates, the Mute, officially registered in the hospital as ‘name unknown’. The name is a slight exaggeration: the Mute has words, but very few; they are limited in the film, as far as I could tell, to ‘I’m going to hit you’ and ‘die’ (the former said to another inmate who steals his spot in bed, the latter to dozens of imaginary insects he is trying to squish with his shoe at night). Some of the other inmates care for him like a friendly puppy that curls up with them in bed and gets hurt feelings when he is thrown out. The Mute is someone whom many people, initially, would hesitate to count as entirely human, but he has nonetheless created a society outside of society.


To recognise the complexity and humanity of these lives does not mean that their conditions are acceptable. As we assent to Wang’s way of seeing, we begin to invest in the successes and sufferings of the inmates: I wanted the Mute to be able to live out his life loving his fellow inmates. I wanted the angry young man to overcome his inner violence without becoming a vegetable. I wanted some of them to be released immediately, like the confused man who has just arrived and whose daughter visits him the next day. The efficiency with which he barks out advice to his daughter to take home to his wife makes it clear that he is, as he repeats over and again, ‘not crazy’. He displays a touching dignity, refusing her offer to bring cigarettes and special food, and trying to get her to leave as soon as possible. The film inspires many forms of indignation.


It will not be easy for these prisoners to emerge from their sombre rooms or to stop endlessly circling the catwalk. In this upside-down world, evil comes disguised in what most people consider one of the greatest goods: medicine. The murky doctors emerge to intermingle with the patients only once or twice a day, to administer pills or shots. The recently admitted father finds himself handed a fistful of drugs by a medical assistant whose sole function is to assure that he swallows them all. He looks surprised at the seven pills in his hand, as if he had never heard of them before, and his apprehension takes the form of a grimace. There is no telling what effect they will have. Wang again discreetly stops filming him here as he moves into what is likely a medication-induced fog. And if the drugs do not sedate the prisoners, the white-clad medical custodians are willing to drop the pretence: one beats up a misbehaving inmate and leaves him handcuffed and bloodied until he faints, and the others worry that he will die.


The medical profession is an arm of state-imposed violence; it is the neutralisation of those people unwilling or unable to become what Michel Foucault would call ‘subjects of power’. Wang’s film brings us directly into the effects of the biopolitical arrangement. We follow one good-humoured young inmate over several sequences in which he tries to sleep, compulsively dumps water over himself, talks with other inmates, and draws in pen ‘phrases of wisdom’ all over his legs and arms. One day he asks for an extra injection because he has a toothache. But the shots put him in a catatonic state in which he sits on his bed, staring blankly, unable to communicate, seemingly for hours (we watch him for several minutes). He is in obvious pain, though perhaps no longer conscious of it. The irony is thick when his cellmate, whom we hear comment only this once – a forced inmate of an insane asylum, let me remind you – speaks the one line in the film that one can, with complete confidence, call reasonable: ‘It’s wrong to lock people up like this. It can make them insane. I mean really insane’.


With all of the visible and invisible walls around them, it comes as a surprise when one of the detainees is discharged to his family’s custody. The hospital’s harsh lines disappear, and there is an initial sense of exhilaration. But, by following the man in the same way that he had followed the inmates of the hospital, Wang shows the exhilaration give way to dimmer emotions. The man’s mother reproaches him for giving away some of his humble belongings to the other inmates; his father greets him with a forbidding glare. He sleeps in a windowless backroom, with a dirt floor covered with potatoes (his family must pay dearly for his hospitalisation). There is an unspoken story here: perhaps he is a financial burden or a troublemaker. Aimless and unemployed, he starts to pace, like the inmates around the walkway, but this time through the village rubble, the construction along the highway, and then along the highway itself. The highway connects him to a larger context, a bigger economy, a global world that is also our world as viewers, wherever our point of entry into it. But his movements and his options in it have changed very little from inside the hospital. We stop following him once again, and return to the hospital with less hope and even less faith in the larger system in which it plays a part, and whose inhumanity it repeats.


At the same time, the film is not nihilistic, for the camera is constantly attracted to the inmates’ remarkable spirit. Toward the end, for example, Wang stumbles on an unusual angle to capture the astonishing but real, budding love affair between a middle-aged man and a woman on the lower level. They are obliged to call out, over the sound of the television and the yelling inmates, a flirtatious exchange that under any normal circumstances would be whispered in the beloved’s ear. Gradually she even screws up her courage to walk up the stairs to the men’s level where they embrace through the bars. There are less traditional romances and relationships as well: two or sometimes three men sleeping in a bed together, an older man and the tattooed boy cuddling on a bench, or the Mute, nuzzling up to anyone who will have him. These moments are fragile, beautiful and somewhat absurd, like the geranium in Rauffenstein’s castle in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937).


A film about how we look, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part concentrates as well on the many, sometimes surprisingly original ways in which the inmates look at each other. Most seek out solidarity and fellowship by belonging to some sort of support group of likeminded men, often from the same village. Some share the gifts they have received from their families. Others act out violently toward others. The camera is briefly attracted to one remarkable man who seems to have been interned for exhibiting too much religious fervour. He says a prayer kneeling in bed, kisses his mattress and lies down to sleep. Around him, however, nothing is normal. The Mute giggles in another man’s bed. Then a fourth inmate comes in, tired and angry, kicks the Mute out so that he can sleep there. There are threats, grunts and other antics, but the Buddhist looks forward with serene detachment. It is tempting to see this man as a model for the filmmaker, inspired by the divinity of life and able to concentrate when surrounded by insanity.


Instead of turning away, Wang shines a light on the inmates. There is, in fact, a beautiful cinematic use of light here. Because of its layout and the relative freedom of movement of the inmates, this facility offers a number of glimpses of natural light. Much of the filming is outside, and the rooms themselves allow an exceptional amount of daylight to shine in. Wang emphasises this light in many ways: in a few scenes, the camera even catches moments of lens flare that add an ethereal beauty, alternating bright sunspots with the images of the men. A shot at the very end of the film illustrates Wang’s use of light. We see an inmate whom we have only previously glimpsed in the margins of another man’s sequences. He is unimportant and humble, smiling and asking his cellmate for a few oranges. We do not learn his name. He is one of the least detailed of the men in the film, a kind of Everyman. In the shot we see him stand up on his bed and, shirtless, thin, with very baggy pants, walk to the foot of the bed, into light coming in from the open door. The light falls on his body in the sepia-tinged room as he undoes his pants and has a long piss into the plastic tub. At the risk of projecting a too-Western perspective, the low-angle shot and the use of dark and light make him look a bit like an icon or a crucifix. He is ugly and beautiful, physical and spiritual, vulgar and noble at once. It is a moving example of how, with confidence in a filmmaker’s vision over three and a half hours, we can develop an acute awareness of human dignity and a deep desire to continue seeing it, even where we might have once averted our eyes in disgust.


At the same time, this beautiful shot is one of the most ambiguous in the film. What does this light mean? It might symbolise hope, God, goodness, reason or freedom. But it is also thoroughly physical, created by the arrangement of the space and therefore a product of the incarceration. Wang acknowledges that most hospitals are not built around a courtyard like this, and that most rooms would be darker. (5) We never forget that it may in fact only be a hitch in the biopolitical machine structuring this man’s physical and mental life that allows these rays of light to be captured on film. Especially for so-called ‘first world’ viewers, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part gestures unmistakably toward the world of economic and political forces that impose darkness on the lives of these human beings. But it also trains us to perceive their dignity and the humanity they share with us, even in the least likely of places. (6)







5. See Douhaire.  

6. Wang’s work deserves much more critical reflection. For reading beyond what is cited above, see two pieces in the New Left Review, the English-language journal that has taken his work the most seriously, and, in French, a book of interviews and an academic collection: Lu Xinju, ‘Ruins of the Future’, New Left Review, no. 31 (January-February 2005); Ying Qian, ‘Power in the Frame’, New Left Review, no. 74 (March-April 2012); Emmanuel Burdeau, Eugenio Renzi and Wang Bing, Alors la Chine (Paris: Editions les Prairies Ordinaires, 2014); François Amy de la Bretèque, Isabelle Anselme and Caroline Renard, Wang Bing (Aix: Presses universitaires de Provence, 2014).

from Issue 6: Distances


© Joseph Mai & LOLA, December 2015.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.