Alors la Chine
Wang Bing about Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part]
Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi: What made you film at the mental hospital of ’Til Madness Do Us Part?
Wang Bing: It was autumn 2002, in Beijing, during the editing of West of the Tracks. One afternoon, because I felt very tired, I decided to take a break and go for a walk with friends. During our walk, we visited a mental hospital in the north of Beijing. Its architecture is in 1950s Soviet style. There are a lot of trees. Everything around it is countryside. No one seemed to be there that day. The doors were open. The wind was strong, and the leaves from the trees made their way into the hallways... As if no other human being had ever entered the place.
Neither doctors nor patients?
It’s a figure of speech. To me, the hospital seemed mysterious; you would have thought that it was empty, that no patients lived there... In any case, we didn’t see any. We went into the courtyard. Because the door of the building was open and because we heard cries, we wanted to go upstairs. Metal bars separated the different corridors. The patients were there, but we couldn’t approach them. We knocked on a door. A nurse came to meet us. We told her some lie so that she would allow us to take a look at her floor, where about twenty-four patients had been institutionalized for a long time, for about twenty or thirty years.
When I approached them, I started thinking about a film that would take place in a place like that. I regularly returned to the hospital afterwards; but alas, we weren’t able to get permission to film there. In 2004, I proposed the subject to the Cinéfondation. Those in charge were all for it, but in the end The Ditch replaced this project.
What story did you tell to the nurse so that she would let you come up?
We pretended we were visiting a family member.
What was it that aroused your curiosity and interest to the point of wanting to dedicate a film to it?
A mental hospital is not, as such, an original theme. The story told by ’Til Madness Do Us Part could just as well happen anywhere else. It is a common story. The fact remains that mental illness is of course an interesting subject, particularly in China. Somehow, mental illness frees mankind, as it liberates mankind from the yoke of the law. At the same time, it makes man more vulnerable...
Really? Don’t you think that it is quite the opposite: that the common stories happen on the outside and not on the inside of mental hospitals?
The life we see on the outside of an asylum is fundamentally not very different from the one we can see on the inside. What interested me was less the hospital than the patients and the life they were living... They don’t consider this place a mental hospital but the place in which they live. Every Chinese citizen needs to have a residence permit in a fixed place. The patients have a residence permit in the hospital. It is their house. That’s where they live as if it is their home. Some of them even stay there for the rest of their lives. Very early on, I was struck by the impression that in a lot of ways there is more humanity on the inside of a hospital than on the outside. One day, I saw something moving: the patients were busy modelling concrete-and-bamboo panda sculptures. Suddenly, a feeling of human warmth took hold of me, and I understood that this feeling was in fact the way I felt about the whole hospital. I had an epiphany. In the courtyard, there was also a large concrete sculp- ture of a rooster, which rose above the tree right next to it, a pine tree or a cypress. It was really strange. I did not know if this statue had been made by work- men or by the patients. All these elements interested me and made me think. I figured the patients had their own point of view on the world outside, their own philosophy...
As I said earlier, I went back to this mental hospital in the north of Beijing on a number of occasions. In 2004, many patients were clearly old, but still in good health. By 2009, a large number of them had died. By talking with the nurses, I learned that their families hadn’t visited them when they were dying. Maybe they hadn’t been informed. Death is a strong presence in the collective life of an asylum. That might seem paradoxical: the isolation in which the patients die is often greater if they die at home, with their family. Within a family, you can feel lonely to the point of having the impression that you don’t exist, whereas those who live in an asylum are part of a group; they have company. They are taken care of, they meet new people, they build new relationships...
Who are the institutionalized patients in the Beijing hospital?
The majority were institutionalized at the time of the Cultural Revolution, between 1960 and 1980. Some of them come from cities, but most of them are farmers. The hospital of ’Til Madness is located in Yunnan and most of its patients were institutionalized from the 1980s onward. The rare few patients who arrived before this date, if there are any, are dead. The ones you see in the film are generally migrant workers whose crises were triggered at work. Some of them are students who experienced fits of madness when passing the admission test at university. Others still are from the area; I don’t know the reason they are considered mad... It happens that their environment – their parents, their brothers and sisters, sometimes their children – decided to have them institutionalized because of a conflict, or just because they don’t have a wife or a job and are too old for their family to still want to take care of them. Some of them have come into contact with the law. They have killed, been involved in drug trafficking, broke the law in one way or another... It’s a hospital, but also a sort of social sanatorium where, among others, the ‘complainants’ are sent, those whose claims have, after a while, tired the police or the law, which has then decided to just get rid of them... The male patients in particular. As for the women, who stay on the floor above the men’s floor, the reasons can be varied as well. Some of them are labourers whose crises have also been triggered at work; most of them are victims of the one-child policy. They suffered so much pressure after the birth of their second or third child that a lot of them went mad.
You talk about the male and female patients, although ’Til Madness Do Us Part only shows the men. Why have you made this choice?
It’s far simpler for men to film other men. Filming psychotic women is very complicated. You never know how they are going to react. And we didn’t have enough time to do it anyway. Nonetheless, I discovered that one of the men, Pu Changyi, had an affair with an instutionalized woman at the hospital. As a victim of the one-child policy, she went mad after the birth of her second or third child. And one of her children experienced some crises as well...
Was it easy for you to get access to the hospital and film there?
The doctors appeared to be pretty kind. Shared friends had introduced me by explaining that I wished to direct a documentary about the hospital. They accepted. So, the authorization issues we expe- rienced in Beijing were quickly taken care of. It was, of course, a big relief and a delight. That was in May 2012. The editing and subtitling of Three Sisters was barely finished then.
What are the main differences between the two hospitals, of Beijing and Yunnan?
The first one is larger than the second one. There is a certain amount of comfort there, despite all its barred windows. The rooms have different sizes and appearances; there are hallways, public television... The patients have some space; they can walk in the courtyard, among the trees... The Yunnan hospital, on the other hand, has only one building and one tree. The patients live at a height, where they are stuck, like in a cage: it looks as if they are hanging above the city. Only air and light can freely enter the place they live in. They don’t have the right to move around the building. They can look out the window, breathe or listen to the surrounding noise: that’s it.
In the beginning, I had difficulty adapting to this hospital, exactly because of its differences to the Beijing one. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if it was the right location to film, and I wasn’t sure either if I really felt like it... In the end, I decided it was worth a shot, as we had the luck of having the permission to film. The shoot started on 3 January 2013. When I arrived, I didn’t know anyone. The first three days, I walked around and chatted with the patients. At the same time, I had to think about how to film the location. After six or seven days, I saw more clearly where to start. Several problems arose, especially the choice of the characters and the narrowness of the corridor, no more than one table wide. When you watch the film, you might have the impression it is wider than that because the metal gate around it is transparent. But it really was very narrow.
My worries weren’t connected to the content but rather to the camera and, more specifically, to its very sensitive lens. Starting to film really was a tall order. We lacked space. Patients approached the lens sometimes, blocking our view... It was really difficult to find the right distance towards them. We also depended on the daylight because our cameras did not adapt well to darkness... ’Til Madness is a film in which all our technical weaknesses are exposed. We had the right to enter and film, but that didn’t mean we could do whatever we wanted. I wanted to start constructing a story pretty quickly, but I didn’t know how to do it. This narrative difficulty made me lose hope for a while.
How did you get out of this difficulty?
After about ten days, I had a first list of characters in my head that I was determined to film, even if it changed afterwards, of course. There was Ma Jian, the boy you see running around the corridor several times; the “mute,” whose name we don’t know, an orphan who grew up on the streets dumpster diving in order to feed himself, and who was taken to hospital one day by someone who found him, alone and abandoned. There was Ma Jian Rong and his room- mate who smokes like a chimney; Ma Yunde, whose wife regularly visits; Song Shenyong, the old man who has been institutionalized for the last twenty years and whom we see giving a cigarette to those who wash his feet... Zhu Xiaoyan, who leaves the hospital for New Year’s Eve and is followed to his house, was not part of this initial list. When his mother came to pick him up, I decided to film him.
Overall, I wished to show little groups of two or three characters, for example Ma Yunde, his wife and Ma Jian Rong’s roommate. These three interested me a lot. Ma Yunde’s wife is modest, very sweet, and very attentive to everyone. During her weekly visits, she never forgot to bring something for her husband and his roommate. The other patients respected her, even those who could otherwise be very aggressive. It was without a doubt because of her charm. Her husband had been at the hospital for almost fifteen years. His institutionalization had happened three months after the birth of their second son. The first one goes to school, but the second one is also ill, mentally disabled. This woman has to face considerable pressure; her daily life on the outside of the hospital is probably more difficult than her husband’s life on the inside. She is unemployed and receives a monthly allowance of 200 yuan. She goes around the city collecting plastic bottles from the garbage, newspapers, etc. which she then sells. In spite of all that, she comes to the hospital every week, and each time she brings fruit or something to eat for her husband and for the others... One day, she arrived empty-handed, and her husband asked her why. She answered that everything was becoming too expensive... In the end, the rushes of this scene weren’t used because the film would have become too long.
Which other characters did you select after these first days?
I think of one young boy, Li Wei, who loves to sing. He worked without ear protection for a tractor factory in Zhejiang (a province south of Shanghai). His mental state was already fragile before that, but these conditions only made things worse. Six months after being hired, he started to complain about brain problems: he frequently suffered headaches and dizziness, saw flashes of light, and had hallucinations... Because of these crises he was institutionalized.
Among those that I had not planned to film in the beginning and that eventually found their place in the economy of the story, we have Yin Tianxin, a patient who had been handcuffed. Yin Tianxin suffered a lot. He was a miserable man, a little stubborn, who got beaten by the other patients. The doctors administered him a variety of drugs and a lot of injections. We see a couple of the drugs’ effects in the film, but we can’t tell how they will work in the long run.
There was another young man, eighteen years old, his hand tied to the bars, crying like an animal... He made a big impression on me. The two of us talked a lot. He told me the difficult life of his family, his parents’ poverty... He had to go to work far away from home, in an unknown and scary place. He couldn’t bear it, and he didn’t earn enough to look after his family’s needs anyway. He had a crisis. He told me he complained a lot, argued with his mother, didn’t eat much... Despite all these problems, he seemed to me as a very intelligent and courageous boy. In the end, he didn’t make it into the film.
We had already filmed a patient who was bound to his bed... Another interesting character was Chen Zhuanyan, a farmer of forty or fifty years old. We witnessed his arrival at the hospital. First he was terrified, but he got used to the place after a couple of days. Via him, I wanted to emphasize the large gap that exists between the inside and the outside.
Among these characters, there was also Wu Shansong, to whom they give an injection, and who prays on his bed. He was the youngest and, with his feminine features, the most beautiful of the patients... All the others looked at him as if he were a beautiful young woman. He got kissed and touched by them and became their sex slave, their toy. He was especially close to an older gentleman he shared a room with and who was very attentive to him. There was some sort of father-son relationship between them. This relation is one of the film’s leitmotivs, as indeed, more in general, is the affection between the patients. I filmed two men who slept together every night, naked, side by side. The images are not in the final edit because bodily contact was already sufficiently highlighted through other characters.
What kind of team did you shoot the film with? How many were you?
We were five. Two on the inside, the cameraman and me: we filmed with only one camera, with a built-in microphone. Three on the outside: the producer, an assistant, and a fifth person in charge of logistics. These last three weren’t really informed on the film’s daily progress. We didn’t have the time to tell them about our days. It was a dense and exhausting shoot: when not filming, we slept.
How were your days organized?
The days are short in winter: we got up at seven, filmed until noon, took a break, and then filmed again after lunch, until midnight. We filmed as long as possible without interruption, so as not to disturb the nurses and the patients. In the evening, when we left, everyone was already in bed. The procedures were many and difficult.
The doctors had to come and open the doors for us every day. In the end, the older ones watching the doors didn’t even look at us anymore. They didn’t really behave very well towards us. We didn’t pay too much attention to it. As long as they let us enter, we kept on filming.
Didn’t you film the procedures? Your negotiations to be able to enter, for example?
No. It was tiring enough already to film all the rest, which was a lot more important. At the end of every day, I was so exhausted I couldn’t even look at the camera anymore... I was more free when I filmed West of the Tracks than in this hospital. In addition, the story of West of the Tracks was more complete; there were different narrative levels... Here, we could only enter if they gave us permission. Our coming and going was monitored. The hospital lives in a separate world. That necessarily requires a different kind of narrative.
When it comes to the camera, how did you decide on the frame? Did you choose to follow one character? One action?
I hardly thought about the frame. I followed characters or feelings. Day after day, I kept on filming patients without any idea of when to stop. It was nerve-wracking. Most filmmakers wonder if they need to film for ten of twenty days... My situation was different: the film I was shooting was endless. I didn’t exactly know which material I needed, if I had to, in absolute terms, film for three or six months, or even more... I asked myself these kinds of questions all the time, even if, on the other hand, I knew very well that the hospital had given us permission to stay for only three months.
Was that the first time you were in that kind of doubt?
I had already experienced it at the time of West of the Tracks, but not to this extent: when we were forced to stop filming in a factory, we could always go and film in another one. For ’Til Madness, the place was a lot more confined, we didn’t have that kind of alternative. After a while, we took stock and we noticed we had already filmed about a hundred tapes. I felt relieved. I took the tapes to the province of Sichuan to start thinking about the editing. There, a new problem arose: how to structure the narra- tive? How to succeed in advancing the plot in a clear way, while telling different things at the same time? I couldn’t count on others, couldn’t explain things in detail... It was important: I was the only one that could think about these style issues.
Once everything about the story of the characters was clear in my head, a new kind of stress was added to the previous ones: I understood that we hadn’t filmed enough. So we returned to the hospital. What we filmed then is close to the end result. It was around New Year’s Eve. We knew that certain patients were getting ready to go home to their fami- lies; but, of course, we had no way of anticipating what would happen next. We followed three or four patients to their homes. The choice was easy: for health reasons, I couldn’t follow the ones that lived at high altitude... In one of the families we filmed, the wife was twenty-five years old and had three very restless kids. The oldest was six. Her husband was in the hospital. Imagine a girl of twenty-five that lives like that in Paris. You can’t live like that. The rushes have been edited out because the story too strongly resembled the story of Three Sisters. And the film was, once again, too long.
Did you send one of your team members to go film at altitude?
Yes, but we didn’t use the images. Filming too many characters out of the hospital would have disturbed the structure of the story.
Why did you choose to follow Zhu Xiaoyan, specifically?
One character was enough. His story was simple. We didn’t need a lot of time to tell it.
At the end of the sequence that shows him with his family, we see Zhu Xiaoyan walk alone, for a long time, at night, on a motorway. What does this shot mean for you?
Nothing special. This shot just shows that Zhu Xiaoyan doesn’t want to sleep at home. He prefers to stay outside. Many filmmakers willingly use metaphors to give form and meaning to their characters. I don’t think that way. I am happy to show their acts, their life...
Without necessarily talking about metaphors, this shot echoes the shots earlier in the film that show certain patients running around the corridors, like animals in a cage.
We can indeed have the impression that nothing has changed, that Zhu Xiaoyan has taken the whole hospital outside with him. I admit I hadn’t thought of that when I edited it. When I create my films, I only worry about realism. It is not up to me to explain them; it’s up to other filmmakers, up to critics.
There is another remarkable thing in ’Til Madness Do Us Part: the names of the patients the film focuses on are written on the screen.
That is fundamental information. We couldn’t give too much information on the characters to the spectator. The minimum is to give their names and indicate how long they have been institutionalized.
Why did you wish to show the patients’ names a couple of minutes after they appeared and not right away?
It often happens that there are more characters in one shot. It wasn’t possible to present all of them at the same time... If they also talk, as is often the case, the presence of the subtitles would have made it more difficult to write the name. That is the only reason we made that choice. We preferred to name the characters in a quiet moment. Otherwise the spec- tator wouldn’t have paid attention to it. Indicating the name of the characters is not a cinematographic approach. It is something which came to me very naturally.
We could say that naming the patients is the goal of ’Til Madness Do Us Part, its result, as if you wanted to tear them out of the anonymity of madness, in order to give them an identity, as if it were necessary that this identity wasn’t given immediately, but only once the spectator had been able to see how different from one another these characters are, different also from the idea we normally have about mental illness.
Maybe... The patients shown in ’Til Madness are common people, ordinary people that will not leave a trace in history. Their name only means something for their families. It will disappear after their death. I have named them because I thought the film was an interesting place for them to exist.
Have you become friends with certain patients or certain employees of the hospital?
I have become friends with many of them. They told me repeatedly that some of them were waiting for us to come in the morning. Others asked us to bring cigarettes or tea leaves. I tried to do it, it was only natural. I have not yet had the chance to go back to the hospital, but I definitely will.
This interview is part of a more extensive interview book Alors la, Chine in which Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi talk with Wang Bing about his life and work. The book, published by Les prairies ordinaires, also contains the illuminating essay “La totalité comme forme” by Eugenio Renzi.
With thanks to Emmanuel Burdeau, Eugenio Renzi and Nicolas Vieillescazes
Images (1), (2), (3) and (4) from Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)