Challenging documentary from Wang Bing about life in a Chinese psychiatric hospital
Filmed in a psychiatric institution in southwest China, which homes 200 male and female inmates who have committed anything from murder to nothing more offensive than being seen as a social misfit, Wang Bing’s arduous four hour documentary makes for challenging viewing.
The difficulties are at least twofold. First there is Wang’s camera, which witnesses numerous acts that might be deemed too private for ordinary documentary access; whether it is someone going out into the hall in the middle of the night and peeing on the landing, or a couple of the inmates snuggling up to each other as if on a sleepover. This invasiveness might seem all the more pronounced due to the director’s refusal to draw a clear line between scenes that are pertinent and others that aren’t. It is as if we’re witnessing what we might not wish to see while Wang withholds information we are used to having spelt out. It isn’t until the very end of the film that we’re informed where the institution happens to be and what offences have been committed leading people to be institutionalised there. Wang only allows his camera to escape the institution once when a prisoner is given leave to visit his parents, and most of the film is claustrophobically confined to the top floor of the prison block.
Many documentarians in recent years have foregone the principles of Direct Cinema prevalent in that golden era of documentary, the sixties, and insisted more on narration than observation. Wang, like Nicolas Philibert, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Philip Gröning and a few others have insisted on scrutinising their subjects over seeing them as ciphers for a doc plot. Yet the risk is that the viewers given so much freedom to watch the behaviour end up instead feeling the absence of a through-line. Here it is perhaps a risk worth taking, as it does allow Wang to investigate and reveal the numerous injustices and difficulties he sees evident in contemporary China.
Reviewed at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014.