Inmates (2017)

This 5-hour long observational documentary shot in a psychiatric ward in Northeast China humanises patients diagnosed with mental illnesses and gives them tremendous empathy and dignity.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Ma Li
2017 | China | Documentary | 287 mins | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for some coarse language

Plot: In a confined section of a psychiatric ward in Northeast China, patients of schizophrenia, mania, depression, compulsive sexual behaviour and alcohol addition receive the mandatory treatment.  Under the control of drugs and unquestionable discipline, they begin to reflect on their souls, will, desire and thoughts.
Awards: Won Best Documentary (Golden Horse); Official Selection (Berlinale)
International Sales: Ma Li Studio

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mental Illness, Institutionalisation
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector – Singapore Chinese Film Festival
First Published: 20 Jun 2018
Spoilers: No

Even a seasoned cinephile may balk at the 5-hour runtime of this documentary, but as those who have seen the film would attest, any trepidation of attempting such a lengthy film evaporates in the first 10 or so minutes. 

As you pass the 1-hour mark, you might think: this is really engaging.  After the 2-hour mark, you just want more.  And before you know it, 5 hours have gone.  

In a dialogue session with producer Li Jun, he mentioned that thousands of hours of footage were shot, so Inmates is essentially just a moment in time, a best-of snapshot of a rarely-experienced setting, giving us a rich, insightful and humbling glimpse into a psychiatric ward and its patients in Northeast China.

Inmates is split into three long chapters that seem to each center on a specific theme, that of confinement, tolerance and acceptance respectively, though these don’t come across as obvious while watching the film—and possibly only make sense if the viewer follows the trajectory of one or two subjects, in particular a patient who thinks he has been unfairly institutionalised by his wife.  

The documentary is shot observational-style as if the filmmakers are absent from the process, though the rare occasion might see a patient ask a question of Ma Li, the director. 

The entire film is very fluid, jumping from one patient to another, and sometimes back to an earlier patient to pick up his story again.  By the end of the film, they become your friends, and it’s startling to know them inside-out, their life stories, fears, concerns, vices, joys and peculiar habits. 

This is Ma’s trump card—the remarkable ability to weave a tapestry of human experiences by patients with mental disorders and turn these patients into born storytellers, and for some (as you will find to great amusement), born comedians.

In spite of tackling such a serious subject matter, there are moments of outstanding comedy (though not intended by the filmmaker) that comes across as genuine amid the interactions between patients.  These are scenes where you laugh with them, and smile at their human ways, or sometimes be at awe at what some of them could do.  

For example, they could be equally as good a caregiver (to a fellow patient) as the nurses that take care of them; or that some have hidden skills of reciting satirical poetry. 

Ma also doesn’t forget to show us the raw emotions of unconditional familial or parental love, some manifesting as frustration, and in one extraordinary 20-minute segment, a mother getting her ill son (who won’t close his eyes) to sleep.  

Inmates is one of the great documentaries of the last few years—it may be no-frills, but it is incredibly engrossing and treats mental patients with tremendous empathy and gives them the dignity they so thoroughly deserve. 

Grade: A


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