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Mad World

Shawn Yue can't stop the feels in Mad World.
Chinese: 一念無明
Year: 2016
Director: Wong Chun
Producer: Derek Chiu Sung-Kei, Heiward Mak Hei-Yan
Writer: Florence Chan

Shawn Yue, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Charmaine Fong Ho-Man

The Skinny:

Remarkably sensitive and restrained look at a bi-polar-suffering Hong Konger from first time feature director Wong Chun. Shawn Yue is very effective in the lead role, though Eric Tsang outshines him as his caring father. One of Hong Kong Cinema’s more surprising and worthy films in 2016.

by Kozo:

Directed by Fresh Wave short film veteran Wong Chun, Mad World is a frank, discomfiting yet remarkably sensitive look at mental illness in Hong Kong. The film tells the tale of Wong Sai-Tung (Shawn Yue), who suffers from bipolar disorder and must acclimate back to the world after a stint in a mental hospital. Tung was committed following a terrible incident involving his mother (Elaine Kam). She had been emotionally and verbally abusive towards Tung, so while a blow-up was understandable, it unfortunately took a much more severe form. Tung now lives in a sub-divided flat with his estranged father Wong (Eric Tsang), who struggles to come to terms with his son’s illness. The incident took a toll on Tung – besides losing his job and his fiancée Jenny (Charmaine Fong), he lost the respect of just about everyone who knows him. Tung is now at the lowest point in his life – can he right his emotions and return from the brink?

Mad World opens with a flashback that shows Tung receiving verbal abuse from his clearly mentally-ill mother, as she blames him for ruining her life, screaming at him and swearing profusely while he just stands passively, letting it happen. This is only the start of the slings and arrows directed Tung’s way over the course of the film, as he’s subjected to people whispering that he’s “a psycho,” or insensitively dismissed as a prospect for jobs. Tung isn’t entirely a victim; he’s defensive and prideful, e.g., he initially refuses to take his anti-depressants, plus he shows up at a friend’s wedding unannounced where he – without being asked to – defends himself publicly. There are some minor moments that seem a little larger than life, but Tung’s experiences largely seem credible and real. He tries to fit in, experiences adjustment difficulties, and his mood and mistakes weigh on him perpetually.

It’s to director Wong Chun and screenwriter Florence Chen’s credit that Mad World doesn’t become a Tung pity party. Tung has a tough lot but he’s not a martyr, and Shawn Yue manages to make him seem both sympathetic and intimidating, in that he looks like he can go off at any time. Not that Tung is a monster, as many characters are quick to label him as, but when his depression creeps up on him or his ego takes over, you can see how he causes pain to both himself and others. Most of these details aren’t spoon-fed; Wong’s direction is observant and attentive but audiences have to do a fair amount of work as Wong uses simple set-ups and long takes that force audiences to observe. Acting is low-key and dialogue is largely natural; the filmmakers mostly let the actors and incidents carry the film, and that’s wise on their part.

Shawn Yue puts his darker side to good use here, and turns in a laudable dramatic performance. Yue’s slacker sensibilities are actually well-suited to a depressed character, in that his passivity can be used to convey uncertainty or restrained emotion, and Yue creates a discernible tension within Tung. However, Eric Tsang and, to a lesser degree, Elaine Kam are stronger. Kam incisively channels the pain and also the pathetic, self-aware side of a mentally-ill mother, while Tsang does the heaviest lifting as the concerned father. Tsang’s character is the audience insert in many ways; he’s the one that cares for Tung while fearing him due to his lack of understanding of bipolar disorder. The character runs the risk of being too maudlin, but Tsang hits all the right notes even when it’s his turn to cry despairingly. He also gets the big “pearl of wisdom” moment but it’s an earned sentiment appropriate to the character arc of a father learning to accept his son.

At one point, the story does foreshadow a positive, “chin up” direction, as if Tung will get past his burden and move out of darkness and into the sunlight. Such a story turn would be pleasing but far from realistic, and it also wouldn’t fit Mad World’s M.O. The filmmakers seem to be attempting an honest portrait of mental illness and, indeed, of average people and how they behave and operate. The supporting characters, while not a main focus, have distinctly-drawn lives of their own and when they come into contact with Tung it can lead to awkward, even awful results that are frightening in how real they seem. In life, people can be villains and victims simultaneously, and the same goes for Tung. Ultimately, these clashes with others lead to Tung relapsing in what might seem a minor and even silly way. Yet everything portrayed is true to the emotional and mental issues he faces.

It’s hard to imagine Mad World finding a terribly large audience as it lacks a commercial story and style. Yet it’s a worthy film, not only in its depiction of depression, but in how it accurately portrays lower class Hong Kong life without grandstanding for it. Despite its settings and subject matter, Ah Tung steers mostly clear of being a social critique. The most the film does in that arena is show the lack of help and kindness Hong Kong people naturally have towards the mentally ill, and even then the filmmakers refuse to pound the pulpit. The result is something that may feel anticlimactic – indeed the characters don’t reach a conclusion so much as switch paths in life – but there’s an honesty in portraying this conflict as something that can’t really be won. Instead, if a few characters and the audience itself can gleam some understanding and acceptance of Tung, well, then Mad World has already accomplished enough. (Kozo, 10/2016)

 Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen