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MIFF 2014 review: 'Til Madness Do Us Part

Wang Bing's documentary about life in a psychiatric institution in southwest China is an experience that threatens to leave you reeling.

Screens August 2, 11

At a mental institution in southwest China, inmates have the choice of staying in their dormitories and staring at the bare, grubby walls or wandering the balconies that flank an inner courtyard, like ghosts trapped in one of the circles of Hell. Some are virtually catatonic, or gesture compulsively; others are relatively lucid and have evidently been locked away for political reasons, though few could endure such an environment for long without becoming mentally ill. Running nearly four hours, the latest documentary from Wang Bing (West of the Tracks) isn't primarily a protest film, nor does it exist to impart information. More than anything it's an experience, one that brings us to a place of nightmare and keeps us there until we start to fear that we, too, will never leave. Shot on low-grade video in minimal light, this is very much “poor cinema”, yet in its length and extremity – as well as its architectural sense – it's also a kind of blockbuster spectacle. The filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette once spoke admiringly of “monumentality”, films that impose themselves through the sheer weight of what is up there on screen: today, nobody's films have that quality more than Wang's.

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