It is never easy for families to deal with mental illness issues, but it is especially difficult in Hong Kong, thanks to the high population density, hyper-connected social media, and iffy social services. At least that is the grim portrait painted in one of Hong Kong’s most lauded indie films of the year. Chosen as Hong Kong’s official foreign language Oscar submission (and previously a selection of the 2017 NYAFF), Wong Chun’s Mad World (trailer here) screens during the 2017 Asian World Film Festival.
Wong Sai-tung has been somewhat stabilized, but he is really being released jut to free up his bed. His estranged father Wong Tai-hoi agrees to take custody, even though he rents a shockingly small space in a sub-divided flat. Tai-hoi accepts fully responsibility for his absentee parenting, but his late ex-wife Lui Yuen-yung is probably just as much to blame. Like Tung, she probably also wrestled with some sort of bipolar condition and most certainly suffered from dementia late in life. Tung was her primary care-giver, but she was not an easy patient to look after. In fact, she directly contributed to his breakdown.
This would be an opportunity for Tai-hoi to redeem himself, but Florence Chan’s screenplay is never so simplistic or Pollyannaish. The working-class father will try his best for his former stockbroker son, but he is ill-equipped to deal with such challenges. Regardless, Tung may very well reach a point where he does not want to be helped.
Right, we are definitely talking about some jolly fun stuff here. As if the mental health themes were not depressing enough, Wong and Chan also give viewers a good look at how the marginalized live in today’s Hong Kong. Their dorm room-like quarters make a Manhattan studio look like a palace. They also have a great deal to say about online bullying and uninformed prejudices against mental illness survivors (they’re generally opposed to both).
Reportedly, this film could not have been made without Eric Tsang’s salary concession. That was probably a good investment on his part, because he has subsequently racked up numerous awards and nominations for his portrayal of Tung’s father. This is a radical departure from the goofy comic roles he is known and even beloved for. Normally, he is such a larger than life presence, but he looks so small here. It is a quiet, acutely dignified turn, but guilt and remorse just seem to stream out of his every pore.
Likewise, Shawn Yue does some of his best work possibly ever as the profoundly damaged Tung. Again, it is not a loud, showy performance, but it resonates deeply. Charmaine Fong further piles on the emotional pain as Jenny Tam, Tung’ ex-wife who was left holding the couple’s financial bag. Her work is harrowingly intense, but the scene in which she verbally condemns Tung while testifying in an Evangelical Christian church was a tin-eared mistake Wong probably already regrets.
Mad World is often hard to watch, but that is mostly a credit to Wong and his cast. There are no easy answers or easy outs in this film. However, the real story is just how convincingly HK superstars Tsang and Yue portray such lost and broken people. Highly recommended, especially for Oscar voters, Mad World screens this Friday morning (10/27) and Saturday night (10/28) as part of the 2017 Asian World Film Festival, in Culver City.