Film Review: ‘Mad World’ Doesn’t Feel as Mad as it Does Human7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
A stockbroker struggling with bipolar disorder goes to live with his estranged father in a cramped flat, where old resentments bubble to the surface.
Director: Wong Chun
Cast: Shawn Yue, Eric Tsang, Elaine Jin, Charmaine Fong
Country: Hong Kong
Runtime: 101 minutes
It’s a Mad World out there.
Mad World《念無明》is Hong Kong director Wong Chun’s debut feature film… and he nailed it. Working within the confines of a small budget and a tiny shooting period of only two weeks, Wong’s first film cements him as a brilliant and versatile filmmaker with impressive chops for framing sensitive topics in a frightfully discomfiting, yet sophisticated way.
The film’s budget of USD257,000 (S$345,000) was funded by the First Feature Film Initiative by the Hong Kong Film Development Board. This micro-budget for such a demanding film is impressive for any director, much less a young and first-time one. Mad World has won 13 awards, including two Golden Horses for Best New Director and Best Supporting Actress for Elaine Jin’s (金燕玲) stellar performance as the ailing and abusive mother.
Hong Kong pretty boy Shawn Yue (余文乐) stars as Tung, a former financial analyst whose already-shaky life comes crumbling down when he unintentionally causes the death of his sick and elderly mother (Elaine Jin) and is subsequently admitted to a mental health institute to treat his bipolar disorder. Yue was previously known for his success in genre films — in particular, he leaned toward action/thrillers and romantic comedies. Mad World gives his fans an excellent display of his acting range — his portrayal of the wretched middle-aged man blighted by his own demons is absolutely superb.
Yue handles his character and the demographic that he represents with deep sincerity and understanding, personifying Tung’s loss of self in a manner that the audience recognises it is not just other characters who misunderstand him — he too struggles to understand himself. His despair and anguish is gut-wrenching on screen.
Veteran actor Eric Tsang (曾志偉) plays Tung’s estranged father who reunites with him when he is released from the institution. To say their relationship is complicated is an understatement, and the film does a marvelous job at fleshing out the nuances. Tung’s father is a truck driver who lives a humble existence in a subdivided flat. When he takes his son in, the two men have to share this tiny space, and their constant close proximity magnifies the hurdles they have to overcome in repairing their relationship.
In the scene where Tung’s father first introduces him to his room consisting of a bunk bed, foldable table, television, chest of drawers and two steps between the window and door, he earnestly tries to make light of the situation, only to lose his smile and heave a sigh when he leaves the room. Tsang gives us a compelling performance as the maladroit father who is desperate to help his son but is clumsy in his attempts. Though their characters spend most of the film failing to communicate, his chemistry with Yue is powerful, making for a realistic and poignant father-son dynamic as they both grapple to understand one another.
Both men are haunted by the recent death of Tung’s late mother, played by Elaine Jin. Perhaps it is less her death, but more the circumstances surrounding it that casts a shadow over the film. Jin’s Golden Horse win is completely deserved — her performance embodies both the physical and emotional torment her character lives in with high intensity. Tung’s mother verbally and emotionally abuses him, pushing him away while he persists in trying to care for her nevertheless. Her hysteria is fueled by an overwhelming sense of misery, making her a pitiful figure behind her stubborn refusals and vicious insults.
The film’s stand in its social commentary on Hong Kong society’s treatment of mental illness can be found in its name. It’s a mad world, not a mad person. The city is, as we all know, a cramped metropolis where space is finite. However, it is the condemnatory public gaze that makes Mad World’s Hong Kong claustrophobic. After his release from the mental health institution, Tung remains caged by the stereotypes that society immediately assigns him.
Their scrutiny is harsh and piercing yet carelessly dismissive at the same time, quick to reduce the mentally ill to labels and deeming them simply ‘dangerous’ and ‘unhinged’. It’s significant that the only person who seems to truly have no reservations about Tung is a child with whom he forms an unlikely friendship, and even that is restricted by the boy’s mother, who assumes that he has ill intentions on the grounds of his bipolar disorder.
We see that Tung is trapped in this vicious cycle as his illness essentially makes him a social pariah. The script cleverly excludes extreme forms of bullying or abuse toward Tung for his condition. By doing so, the film saves the melodrama and instead shows how microaggressions can hurt just as much. There is not one big pivotal moment. Rather, the discrimination he faces comes in steady streams from every direction Tung turns, and it takes a toll. Again, Yue must be given credit where it’s due — with every shade of emotion he conveys, the audience witnesses every step in what feels like an endless descent in an unforgiving world.
Wong’s agility as a filmmaker is evident in his ability to deliver such a poignant piece with a production period of only two weeks. He is also the film’s editor, and his work here cannot go unpraised. Jump cuts are used within scenes to cross-hatch the past and present, creating tension and continuity between the two which further solidifies the inescapability of Tung’s cycle of madness.
But the world doesn’t exist in black and white, and Wong does a great job at exploring the greys. As he mentioned in an interview with Time Out Hong Kong, there are really no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, it’s just people being people. While Tung’s mental illness doesn’t make him a bad person, the film isn’t quick to make him a martyr, as it shows how unreasonable he can be with his actions, and how his refusal to cooperate is a challenge to those around him. But every character in this Mad World has demons, and the film does a great job at illustrating the stigma against mental illness without being preachy about it.
All in all, Mad World is a captivating watch with standout performances and a potent storyline, demonstrating Wong’s perceptiveness as a director with a firm grasp of the issues he sets out to tackle.
Mad World (2016) is currently streaming on Netflix.