Early in Wong Chun’s Mad World, Eric Tsung’s nameless character is told that dark chocolate would help calm his bipolar, adult son during intensified situations. Naturally, this plays out later in the film when Tung, the bipolar son, attempts to counter an anxiety attack by gorging himself on Snickers bars in the middle of a convenience store. Wong doesn’t yield; his camera remains on Tung as he sobs through mouthfuls of caramel and nougat, the candy bar dripping from his mouth as gawking onlookers record the incident with their phones. Of course, the video goes viral throughout Hong Kong. (And I’ll add insult to injury, Snickers is milk chocolate not dark.) The scene is a perfect thesis statement for Mad World, an unrelenting, miserable affair that seems to have formed its tasteless, psychological melodrama from a how-to book on how not to treat mental illness.
I want to tread carefully because there is a disconnect between an American audience and the film’s native land. Study of mental illness and the help necessary for patients like Tung is a rarity in Hong Kong. It seems a subject whose progress is arrested, so stigma is much more public and widespread than in North America. The United States has its own history with issues-based melodrama, a popular genre in the 50s, so Wong might just be reflecting his own times.
After a year away, Tung (Shawn Yue) is released from a mental hospital to the care of his father, who’d abandoned the family years before. Wong fills in details through flashbacks. Tung was engaged to Jenny, had a respectable job as a financial advisor and was the only one in his family to care for his ailing (mentally and physically) mother. Yet his bipolar disorder sent him into extreme emotional outbursts that eventually led to her death. The film remains hazy on the details, even though Tung is found not guilty. Viewers only get the memories which haunt him: an image of water (then blood) running from under the bathroom door is repeated throughout. Mad World is Chun’s attempt to destigmatize mental illness through the plight of Tung and his father. As they begin to reconcile and come to terms with each other’s past and present, it seems the rest of Hong Kong draws further away in ridicule and fear.
The problem is the film’s berating miserablism. Everything a screenwriter could throw in to amplify the terrible situation is present. Sequences are set up almost like punchlines. The day after Tung comes home, he tells his father that he’s going to a friend’s wedding. His father suggests that he accompany him, which he doesn’t. Tung is ridiculed when he takes the stage to scold the audience as they talk during the groom’s toast. After he reconnects with his fiancée, she invites him out to what he thinks is a date. Nope. She’s actually invited him to a church service where she gives a testimony, naturally, of how Tung ruined her life and how she hates yet forgives him. (This incites the Snickers incident mentioned earlier.) Any compositional or aesthetic value, like Wong’s captivating cluttered frames that mimic the compounded confusion of Tung’s psychological milieu, is ultimately dulled by the unbearable weight of the film’s didacticism.
In overbearing fashion, Wong creates a moralizing, almost regressive film about mental illness. By framing it in this fatalistic melodrama, he doesn’t allow for real life to respire nor allow any empathy from viewers who may come to this with backward, antiquated notions of psychological health. I don’t mean to be glib regarding the seriousness of Hong Kong’s crisis, but I do wish Mad World actually possessed an ounce of real empathy or compassion. Its megaphone messaging is lost in the noise of its own desperation. It’s a Snickers bar when we needed dark chocolate.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.