Throughout the aptly titled Mad World (一念無明), the central character frequently asks if he is really the one who is “abnormal” or if everyone else is merely operating under some misguided notion of “normality”, either deluding themselves that they meet it or actively masking the fact that they don’t. The first feature from Wong Chun, Mad World is not only the story of a man attempting to live with mental illness in a society which is unwilling to confront it, but also a discourse on the various ills of modern life from the ageing population and breakdown of the “traditional” family to the high pressure nature of “successful” living. Carefully nuanced yet pointed, Wong Chun’s vision is at once bleak and hopeful, finding victory in the courage to move on in self acceptance rather than in a less ambiguous discovery of a more positive future.
Tung (Shawn Yue) has spent the last year institutionalised after being arrested in connection with the death of his mother (Elaine Jin). The doctors and courts have both absolved him of any blame, but Tung has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is being released into the care of his estranged father, Wong (Eric Tsang), rather than simply released. When Wong picks Tung up at the hospital, the disconnect and anxiety between them is palpable, as is Wong’s embarrassment when he takes Tung back to the tiny room he inhabits in a low rent lodging house sharing a kitchen and a bathroom. Father and son will be sleeping on bunk beds with any idea of privacy or personal space firmly rejected.
Wong, a man in his 60s who’d all but abandoned his family for a career as a long-distance truck driver crossing the border into China, is ill-equipped to cope with caring for his son on several different levels. Perhaps a man of his times, he’s as ignorant and afraid of mental illness as anyone else, quickly getting fed up with Tung’s frequent crying fits and even stooping so low as to simply ask him why he can’t just be normal like everyone else. However, after getting more used to Tung’s new way of life, Wong does his best to get to grips with it, buying a number of books about depression and joining a support group for people who are caring for those with mental health needs.
Tung continues to struggle, finding it difficult to reintegrate into to society when society actively excludes those who don’t quite fit in. Attending a friend’s wedding shortly after having been discharged, Tung spots a few unpleasant social media posts referring to him under the nickname “Mr. Psychosis” while guests in the room mutter about the “nutjob” who must have just escaped the “loony bin”. Tung doesn’t do himself any favours when he grabs the mic and interrupts the groom’s speech to take the audience to task for their indifference, but the hostility he faces is entirely unwarranted. Later, experiencing another setback, Tung finds himself the subject of a viral video when he stops into a convenience store and guzzles Snickers bars in an attempt to improve his mood. It’s not long before someone has correctly identified him as the guy who was accused of killing his mother and put in a mental hospital, literally sending him right back to square one in terms of his recovery. To make matters worse, Tung can’t get any of his old contacts to look at his CV because they all have him branded as a dangerous madman and interviewing for new jobs never gets very far after they ask why there’s a one year gap in his employment history.
Employment does seem to be a particular source of anxiety with frequent mentions of mass layoffs and even managerial suicides in the high pressure financial industries. Even before the events which led to his hospitalisation, Tung was undoubtedly under a lot of stress – planning a life with his fiancée, Jenny (Charmaine Fong), which adds the financial pressures of mortgages and saving to start a family. The sole carer for his elderly mother, Tung is also on the front line for her cruel, sometimes violent mood swings which, according to Wong, are a lifelong phenomenon rather than a symptom of the dementia she is also afflicted with. Tung lashes at out Jenny when she suggests putting his mother in a home where she can be better cared for, exhibiting a streak of unpredictable, frustrated violence of his own which also deeply worries him.
Tung may have inherited this impulsive volatility from his mother, in one sense or another, but his longstanding feelings of low self worth are as much to do with his parents’ seeming disregard for him as they are to do with anything else. His mother, unhappy in her marriage, blames her eldest son for trapping her in dead end existence while continuing to worship the younger one, Chun, who went to an Ivy League US university and has since left them all far behind. Constant, unfavourable comparisons to the golden boy only raise Tung’s levels of stress and resentment at being obliged to care for the woman who constantly rejects and belittles him after the “good” son and the “bad” husband both abandoned her. Wong “left” his wife because he couldn’t cope with her difficult personality and complicated emotional landscape, but now faces a similar dilemma with the son he had also left behind.
Hong Kong is, indeed, a maddening world as Tung and Wong find themselves crammed into a claustrophobic share house filled with similarly stressed and anxious people predisposed to see danger where there is none. Tung’s condition finds him semi-infantilised as the wiser than his years little boy from next-door becomes his only friend until his mother finds out about Tung’s condition and orders her son not to see him. Wong Chun’s central premise seems to be that the world will drive you crazy, but if there were more kindness and less hostility perhaps we could all stave off the madness for a little longer. Anchored by strong performances from Yue and Tsang, each playing somewhat against type, Mad World is a remarkably controlled debut feature which subtly underlines its core humanitarian message whilst taking care never to sugarcoat its less pleasant dimensions.
Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017
Original trailer (English subtitles)