Til madness do us part – Wang Bing (2013)

It was difficult to find time for writing another review. I have been asked to write an essay on Wang Bing for Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which programmed an artist focus on the Chinese director. I am also contributing to a French-language edited collection on Lav Diaz, and have been offered to write a book on Slow Cinema. Writing spreads out, and the blog is, at the moment, not the only platform I need to take time for. If posts come at a slower rate than usual, you know why that is the case.

After the first hour or so of Wang Bing’s ‘Til madness do us part (2013), I knew that I didn’t want to write a review of the whole film. When the director introduced Ma Jian, who had been hospitalised for five months at the time of filming, I knew that I wanted to focus on this specific character. There is a lot just in the first quarter of the film alone. The images alone say so much. The behaviour of those hospitalised, some for over a decade, deserve a separate study. The different backgrounds of those hospitalised, too, deserve a separate study. Madness is such a rich film, disconcerting without a doubt, but this very film says perhaps more about the director’s country than any of his other films.

My main interest has long been the representation of trauma and the aim at representing a sort of concentrationary universe through the use of time (duration), and interaction between absence and presence, life and death. I wrote quite a bit about it in my PhD thesis, which you can download from the British Library. In my thesis, I analysed the ways in which Lav Diaz created a concentrationary universe in his films, in particular in Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). I argued, contrary to available literature, that the concentrationary doesn’t need an actual camp or a prison as a framework. The concentrationary is first and foremost based on a specific experience of time and space.

In Wang Bing’s Madness, you have the nature of the concentrationary right in front of your eyes without the director needing to create a particular mix of aesthetics in order to evoke it. Only a camera was needed, straightforward shots of inmates of a mental hospital, inmates whose reason for their being there is not always evident. Some men we come across – and this is striking because the film focuses on the male population of the institution – certainly struggle with their mental health. Some may be autistic, some violent. Some cannot shoulder a normal life on their own. Others seem perfectly normal, and, seeing this film in 2019, makes you wonder about the real reason for their stay. I’m thinking in particular of one Uighur, who, in one scene, is filmed while following his traditional prayer routine. Perhaps, the man would have gone unnoticed six years ago. Perhaps he could go unnoticed even today. Yet, with China ramping up their persecution of Uighurs and deporting them to concentration camps for “re-education”, Wang Bing’s temporary focus on this young man poses questions about the reasons for his internment. Was the internment in mental hospitals the beginning of concentrating the Muslim population? Was this young man there simply for his religious beliefs?

But let me return to the man I mentioned above: Ma Jian. A young man, who, in the first part of the film, reminded me of a nervous lion inside a cage waiting to be let out. Jian has a tendency to violence, although the question is whether he had been violent before his internment, or whether violence became a means for expressing his frustration with his being locked up. This is the first element one notices: in no way does this mental hospital look like one. Except for handcuffs, which, to be fair, do come into use here and there, the hospital has everything of a prison, including the barred doors. It’s nothing more than a building made of cold concrete with rooms which up to six people share at once. The bars along the hallways certainly prevent suicidal inmates from jumping off their balcony, but, as a viewer, it gives one a permanent feeling of being locked up.

Jian is a fascinating character, and I believe that he is autistic. His reasoning, his monologues (or even dialogues with Wang Bing), show his intelligence. He is fully aware of what’s happening around him and he is also aware of his not being in the right place. “How the fuck did I end up like this?” he asks. He seems sleepy, almost drunk, which could be the effect of medication they give him to calm him down, to sedate him.

“What kind of life is this?”

“The pain doesn’t make you want to live. How many lives I have? Nine!”

There is a lot going on in his head. Ma Jian is the character that touched me most in the entire film. At the time of filming, he had been interned for five months. When we see him first, we don’t know why he is there and for how long he will have to stay there. The immediate concern, from my side, was what will happen to this fragile character in an environment like this. It’s not at all about living, it is about surviving and following your basic needs. One man, struggling to keep on his feet, gets out of bed in one scene, stumbles out of the room into the hallway and pees right there. He didn’t go to the toilet. It didn’t matter. Life is nothing other than basic needs. The man has become a muselmann.

Nothing really matters in this hospital. The inmates live outside of time. They have fallen out of time, as David Grossman would describe it in his book on trauma. There is little to keep the patients busy. Most spend their time in bed, regardless of the time of the day. They are vegetating, and that often for years. Ma Jian attempts to fight against this state. He runs. He takes off his jacket, jumper and shirt and starts running. Wang Bing follows him, a magnificent long-take that, I believe, is the best scene in the director’s oeuvre. It’s spontaneous, it’s life and fight, it’s pulsating. It’s a rebellion. It’s a “no” to everything.

“This is a dead end. This sucks, how can anyone live like this? Come on, kill me. You could even butcher me like a cow or a chicken.”

One of the main characteristics of the concentrationary system: an increase in the death drive. But suicide is prevented, through bars and empty rooms. There is no escape from this degrading situation. Agony is extended. Frustration grows. There is no other possible end than madness in this hospital. ‘Til madness do them part. There is something about Wang Bing’s choice of film titles that strikes me every time I see another film of his. How fitting can a title be, how much can it reinforce every single frame that we see? I’m still wondering what has happened to those people in the last six years. Are they still there? Have some been released? Just how many have lost their minds?

And then there is this echoing title. Until madness do us part. Me and the people I have followed for four hours.

Austerlitz’s time

What is Austerlitz’s time, and where do I get this from? Well, I didn’t expect my wanting to write a blog post about Jacques Austerlitz when I picked up W.G. Sebald’s magnificent book Austerlitz. It’s Sebald’s last novel, published in 2001, and focuses on a man who is simply called Austerlitz most of the time in the book. Austerlitz is haunted by a past he doesn’t know. For most of his life he had ignored where he was from. Or rather, he frankly didn’t know. His memory blocked a very essential part of his life, his childhood, but this blockage was the cause of his being haunted by a past he could never clearly see. For him, as he says, “the world stopped for me at the end of the 19th century.”

At some point in the book, when Austerlitz meets the author again and continues telling his story or his accounts of fascinating historical facts or architectural designs, Austerlitz makes a couple of remarkable statements about the subject of time. Overall, there is so much you can take from this book that it has become, for me at least, one of the best books I have read in my life.

Austerlitz proposes the thought-provoking argument that “time is of all our inventions the most artificial one”. This might sound strange at first, but it sort of accompanies what I had been writing about on this blog in the early days regarding time, as we know it, as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with nature. What Austerlitz describes here, without directly mentioning it in the paragraph that follows, is man’s invention of the mechanical clock that divided a day into 24 equal hours, each hour into 60 equal minutes, and every minute into 60 equal seconds. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, people lived according to the natural cycle of the sun. That was especially true for farmers who got up when the sun rose and stopped their work when the sun set. I strongly believe that was also true for cave men who ventured out in daylight to hunt (another vital factor here is the aspect of darkness as posing a threat to man, which changed when street lamps were introduced much later).

I also remember Lav Diaz saying that life in the Philippines changed drastically when the Spanish colonisers introduced the mechanical clock. All of a sudden, time was linear and not, as the Chinese, for instance, believed, a river with many different arms and therefore directions, waves, and ripples. Time became a constantly progressing entity that, as you might also remember from my writing, becomes completely obsolete when someone suffers from PTSD. It is PTSD that disrupts the linear time we have created with the invention and introduction of the mechanical clock, but I wonder whether it’s not this concept of linear time that reinforces this traumatic stress because it is expected of us (and time) to persistently move forward. So if a person is stuck in the past, or if the past repeatedly resurfaces (because this is how life is anyway – a mixture of past and present that leads to the future), then this is not an acceptable development. (NB: My PhD thesis explores the themes of duration and time in the context of post-trauma in more detail.)

The mechanical clock turned time into something that can be measured, that can be divided, and that only ever follows a linear progression. Austerlitz continues, “if Newton really thought that time progresses like the current in the river Thames, then where is its origin and which sea does it flow into?” But Austerlitz isn’t done. He asks, “everyone knows that a river has two shores. But what are, then, the two borders of time? What are its specific characteristics that correspond approximatively to that of water, which is liquid, pretty heavy and transparent?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I marvel about it and have been thinking about it since the first time I read it. It all makes me think of Chinese philosophy again, and its perception of and approach to time that differs so greatly from our Western standards. In particular, the idea of time having different speeds, different directions – simply put, varying and various characteristics – is something that pops up in my head over and over again when I read about prisons and the concentrationary system in which the concept of time is used as punishment and torture. What happens in those circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, is that people are taken “out of time”. In some cases, imprisonment becomes a place where the linear progression of time no longer applies, but where time instead becomes an utterly confusing, anxiety-inducing construct used for the sake of extracting information from prisoners. This “being out of time” is also mentioned in Austerlitz’s monologue, but in a different context.

He argues that despite our lives being seemingly governed by the mechanical clock, it is and remains the cosmos that really structures our lives, an “unquantifiable vastness” that does not comply with linear progression but that progresses more in the form of swirls, precisely what the Chinese proposed centuries and centuries ago. Time is not linear but circular. This, Austerlitz says, is what governs life in “lesser developed countries” but also exists in large metropolitan cities, such as London. “Aren’t the dead out of time? Or the dying? Or those who are sick and confined to their bed in hospital?” Time stops for them, or progresses differently than the way prescribed by our mechanical clock.

The question I pose (more or less to myself) is to what extent film can help us understand this, can help us see that time is not a linear progression or that there are several people who live “out of time”? Can film, as a time-based medium, do this at all, or will it always fail because film, just like time, is an artificial construct?