The scant material resources behind Wang Bing’s documentaries—low five-figure budgets, midrange digital cameras equipped with second-hand lenses—belie their monumental qualities. There’s the runtimes, obviously. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), screening on May 23rd at the AFS Cinema, lasts almost four hours, and even that’s only half the length of Dead Souls (2018), which also screened this month in Austin. But Wang’s longest films share with the shortest a drive to pursue the unfixable, to commit to posterity the lives and locations that exist on China’s margins in a state of permanent uncertainty: “a land in flux,” to use the title of a recent exhibition of the director’s work.
So it’s appropriate that Wang’s films, while perfectly effective as standalone works, also feel like stages in a single open-ended, overarching project. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part grew out of extended sojourns in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, where Wang produced portraits of an impoverished mountain village (Happy Valley, 2009; Three Sisters, 2012; Alone, 2013) and refugees along the Burmese border (Ta’ang, 2016). Offered the chance to make a film in a nearby mental institution—a rare instance of official cooperation with a filmmaker whose works are not legally distributed in China—Wang scraped together a budget and shot for sixty days. Soon after, he followed migrant workers out of rural Yunnan to the industrial suburbs of the Yangtze River Delta, leading to Bitter Money (2016), 15 Hours (2017), and the forthcoming Shanghai Youth.
Migration doesn’t figure in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part the way it does in Wang’s contemporaneous films, but in it we find the same longing for home in environments that assume, like Orwell’s echt-bureaucrat O’Brien, the infinite malleability of man. Despite that, the civil-war refugees of Ta’ang and the eponymous children of Three Sisters—left to fend for themselves in a village depopulated of working-age inhabitants—carve out spaces where their families can endure, however reduced or beleaguered. The patient-inmates of ‘Til Madness, however, are confined to a structure that stands against even the most ostensibly immutable of social units; echoing the film’s English title, a pair of self-described husband-and-wife inmates strain to glimpse each other across gender-segregated floors. (Since Wang was barred from the women’s floor, the female patients are similarly filmed only from a distance, except when the entire population is gathered outside at mealtime.)
Some of these inmates have been committed by their family members themselves: parents, children, siblings, spouses, and in-laws unable to cope with whatever afflictions have struck their loved ones. Several plead to return home, and one eventually does, on a ten-day furlough. His bedroom includes a dirt floor and piles of root vegetables; it bears a more than passing resemblance to the spartan dwelling of Three Sisters, and while a viewer might blanch at his parents’ brusque manner (“Maybe it’s time you went back to the hospital”), the hardscrabble conditions make it more comprehensible that a family might consign one of their own to such a grim institution.
The idea of the mental hospital as a microcosm of society is a tired one, and offensive to the extent that it minimizes the aberrant practices sometimes found within. But the locale at the heart of ‘Til Madness Do Us Part is perhaps the most overt, institutional representative of the forces in Wang’s work that push human relationships to their breaking point. That the inmates persist in building them regardless—as in the awkward but touching scene where a man snuggles up with a roommate to recapture the coziness he once enjoyed with his girlfriend—stands against O’Brien’s assertion that everyone can be broken; domesticity can exist, however fleetingly, under the most inhospitable conditions.
But this depiction of the inmates’ basic impulses should not be taken as a flattening of their conditions into a universal “human” experience. One of the great strengths of Wang’s cinema is a consistent refusal to deny the qualitative differences that distinguish their lives from those that have never known the privations of, say, a squalid mental hospital or a makeshift refugee camp—a documentary practice that doesn’t betray its subjects by rendering them more consumable for an unfamiliar audience. This manifests itself partly through common direct-cinema techniques, like an aversion to explanatory interviews (outside the historically-focused Dead Souls, Beauty Lives in Freedom, and Fengming, a Chinese Memoir) and voice-overs. Others are more unusual: the near-absence of establishing shots, for example, or the placement of expository text at the end of a film rather than its outset, presenting an invitation for reflection instead of a pre-packaged framework for what’s to come.
Also key to Wang’s films is an emphasis on how people inhabit the spaces around them, at lengths that can resemble the “anti-narrative” sensibilities of video art (in which Wang has also worked) and experimental cinema. This is not to imply that Wang is lax in his editorial interventions: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part was cut down from roughly 400 hours of footage, and the film is structured to focus on a relative handful of inmates. Nor does Wang rigidly stick to a long-take, sequence-shot aesthetic, cutting within scenes to elide an action or depict it from another angle. (Per his usual method, however, Wang shot the film with only a single camera, trading off with his cameraman Liu Xianhui.)
But Wang frequently includes footage that another filmmakers might discard as redundant or “undramatic.” One early section follows inmate Ma Jian’s nocturnal wanderings among the five-bed dormitories and a common room of hard benches and an antiquated TV. He attempts to trade some tobacco for a textbook, removes his shirt and jacket, and takes off running through the outdoor corridor overlooking the hospital’s central courtyard. He returns to collect his clothing and moves on to another dormitory, where he inexplicably attacks a bed. A doctor arrives, as though out of nowhere, to give him an unspecified injection; Ma then produces a bowl of instant noodles that he eats in the common room, before finally settling down in what he claims to be his bed—but only after expelling the other man already sleeping therein.
On its own, much of this would seem inessential. Ma’s bartering is desultory and inconclusive; the camera follows him for several complete laps around the corridor; he’s shown eating his noodles for almost a full minute, doing nothing else except move from a bench to a squatting position in front of the TV. The sequence’s concern for spatial integrity acquaints the viewer with the hospital’s layout, but this doesn’t account for such apparent longueurs. They transform what might’ve been a series of discrete episodes, set against the backdrop of this room or that, into Ma’s experience of the space in its entirety: the jarring rhythms of tedium, paranoia, quiet domesticism, and the liberatory feeling of a spontaneous nighttime jog—a feeling brought out to maximum effect by underlining Ma Jian’s eagerness to keep it going as long as possible.
Yet Wang never lulls the audience into believing they have a complete picture of his subjects’ feelings and experiences. In Ma Jian’s case, his occasional comments to the cameraman (“Damn, you’re as sweaty as me”) are blunt reminders that our access to Ma is mediated by the filmmakers. Such direct address is rare in Wang’s work (again, excepting the interviews in Dead Souls and its like); more ubiquitous is a formal approach that foregrounds the camera as an object in physical space, not a free-floating observer. In ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, for example, patients pass their days in the narrow corridor ringing the central courtyard, from which it is separated by metal bars. While Wang’s crew could’ve shot from the courtyard for a different perspective, scenes set in the corridor are invariably shot from within, its surfaces typically receding into the background. One could read this as a reflection of the inmates’ own confinement, but it more broadly reflects Wang’s reluctance to dominate a space by breaking it up with reams of coverage. When Wang cuts to a different angle on a location, it’s often from the same vantage point as the preceding shot, just panned to one direction or the other. Even when the camera’s position changes between shots, his preference for centering individuals in the frame at a relatively consistent distance—with infrequent recourse to space-destroying inserts or zooms—maintains a respect for the location and, more importantly, the subject’s place within it.
This style of shooting and editing is no formalist tic, though in some of Wang’s films it achieves a rare level of rigor—as in 2014’s Father and Sons, which portrays a migrant family’s one-room apartment from a more or less fixed position facing the back wall. Wang outlines its practical basis in Night and Fog in Zona, Jung Sung-il’s 2015 documentary on the production of Three Sisters and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part. Reviewing the day’s footage at a “midnight meeting” with his crew, Wang repeatedly exhorts them to “decide your main focus” and follow it in a single, unbroken take. Not only does this “create a style,” he explains, it also maintains the stability of the shot and a link to the subject: “Stay close, follow the targeted object, and make camera movements [instead of changing position]. Then the connection is created there.”
In the same meeting, Wang hammers home the need to prioritize the movement of the “main focus” above anything else: “Stick to the principle that, even when the subject moves, I don’t… You only have one target, so respond only to that person’s movement.” Wang’s fixation on movement underlies his switch from photography (his major in art school) to film, a transition he explained to New Left Review:
Photography as a form of visual art has its own properties and characteristics. Many people maintain a lifelong engagement with it. I used to spend day after day in the darkroom when I was a student in Shenyang and gained some understanding of the form and working process. However, personally, I was not particularly attracted by the seizing of a given moment; for me, the moving image was far more interesting. It provided a unique way to enter the reality of our time, to present the many facets of human life in a holistic way.
Wang’s cinema amply lives up to the qualities he assigns to it here: a cinema that upholds the dignity of its marginalized subjects by representing their lives as a ongoing passage through the world, not a series of inert moments to be cherry-picked and polished to a fine, self-aggrandizing sheen. Some monuments are carved in marble; Wang makes his on video, and they’re no less enduring for it.