Wong Chun’s Mad World depicts the harrowing consequences of stigmas about mental illness but fails to engage with the reality of mental illness in favour of an uplifting family narrative where love is just as good as medication. Mad World is screening at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.
In the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for women to be sent to insane asylums simply for being troublesome wives, a convenient alternative to divorce. In the contemporary Hong Kong of Wong Chun’s Mad World, a diagnosis of “suppressed menstruation” or “use of abusive language” wouldn’t hold water, but families fed up with their mentally ill dependents might resort to institutionalization all the same. Florence Chan’s screenplay suggests that this is thanks to a combination of poor support from the medical establishment and extreme stigmas toward mental illness in society.MAD WORLD depicts a Hong Kong with extreme stigmas about mental illness.Click To Tweet
When Mad World opens, a father (Eric Tsang) picks up his recently discharged son (Shawn Yue) from a mental hospital. His son has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was somehow involved in his mother’s death — the details of which are revealed slowly, through a series of painful flashbacks — which lead to his involuntary commitment. A doctor assures the father that his son is recovered, or at the very least that there’s no more that they can do for him at the hospital, which is in desperate need of his bed. So he’s released back into society with instructions to keep taking his medication but no support for either of them to manage his illness.
It soon becomes clear that knowing what to call an illness isn’t much help when nobody really understands what it means. As far as his father is concerned, the son is crazy. When the neighbors hear gossip about the mother’s death, the pair become outcasts. That the son spends his days crying, irritable, and unable to get out of bed doesn’t help matters. The father understands his son must take his medication, but not much more. At one point, his father, at the end of his rope, pleads, “Why do you have to be like this?” Before being burdened as his son’s caretaker, he was already struggling to make end’s meat, living in a tiny, dilapidated room in a co-op. Managing bipolar disorder is no easy thing with support and resources, so it’s no surprise that it becomes too much for both of them.In MAD WORLD, knowing what to call a mental illness doesn't help because nobody understands it.Click To Tweet
In the son’s flashbacks, we start to see that mental illness runs in the family. When his younger brother abandoned the family for wealth and education in America, and his father flat out disappeared, it fell to him to care for his mother. And she was challenging: constantly in pain, moody, and prone to spouting vitriol. In short, she was suffering from mental illness. But nobody in the film — perhaps not even the filmmakers — seem to understand that her unpleasantness and cruelty are symptoms of an illness, and shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. Illness doesn’t excuse her abusive behaviour, but it does help to contextualize it; an understanding of this could have helped her family to better cope with it. Instead, her son becomes a martyr to the cause of caretaker, putting up with her abuse as he grows to hate himself and her while taking out his frustrations on his fiancée.In MAD WORLD, director Wong Chun emphasizes that you can't outsource caring for family.Click To Tweet
“You can’t outsource everything,” is a repeated refrain throughout the film. First, the son insists he won’t “outsource” his mother’s care to an institution for the elderly. Later, his father insists that he won’t send his son back to an institution simply because it would be easier for him. At a support group for family members of people with mental illness, the resounding message to the father is that he should have his son committed: say he’s suicidal and be done with it. The father feels that’s too easy, too cruel, and lacks compassion: having been an absent parent, he wants to redress old wounds, to be there for his son the way he should have in the past.MAD WORLD suggests that mental hospitals are little more than a place to keep troublesome people.Click To Tweet
Yet in the bleakness of Mad World, neither alternative seems particularly good. It wouldn’t be a lie to say that his son is suicidal. In fact, just days before, the father found him with a razor blade in the shower, wrists slit. But on their subsequent visit to the hospital, a doctor coolly and detachedly asked his son if he was suicidal, warning that an affirmative answer would result in involuntary admission. Unsurprisingly, the son assured him he wasn’t; his father agreed; and that was that. The incredibly depressed son needs help. But it’s also not clear that the mental hospital could help him. The son has already spent years there, but he didn’t leave with effective coping strategies or a medication plan that he’s committed to. Mad World suggests that the mental hospital is little more than a place to put him where he wouldn’t bother people.
Ultimately, Mad World refuses to engage with the reality of mental illness in favour of an uplifting family narrative where love is just as good as medication. It’s certainly true that support from friends, family, and medical professionals is crucial to successful treatment. But there’s also no cure, only management — something the movie barely even acknowledges. Accepting his son and his illness may be the first step to a way forward for both of them, but it’s hardly a solution in its own right. Director Chun and screenwriter Chan risk simplifying the issues down to the ignorant beliefs about mental illness that it criticizes in its characters.