Cervantes’ knight Don Quixote is the insane protagonist of what is often regarded as the world’s first novel. And according to Andrew Scull’s recently published Madness in Civilisation, insanity has been a topic of fascination for the literary world for centuries, becoming particularly popular thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud.
In 1924, the American movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn even crossed the Atlantic to meet Freud, offering him $100,000 to come to Hollywood to write a story for the screen. Goldwyn’s proposal was rejected. Nevertheless, as Scull notes, madness has had plenty of movie moments. In 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won five major Academy Awards. This feat was not matched until 1991: by The Silence of the Lambs, which featured the psychopath Hannibal Lecter.
In China mental illness hasn’t got the same movie treatment. From the late 1960s, mental incapacity wasn’t even classified as an illness but rather as faulty appreciation of the class struggle. Patients would be taken from hospitals and sent to labour camps because of perceived counter-revolutionary” behaviour. More recently the situation has improved. Since May 2013, the Mental Health Law (the first of its kind in China) has required that most psychiatric commitments be voluntary.
With this context in mind, it is hardly surprising that few Chinese studios have focused on mental disorder as a dramatic device. This taboo, however, seems to have been broken by Insanity, starring Sean Lau and Michelle Ye from Hong Kong, as well as Huang Xiaoming from the mainland. In the film, a long-time mental patient convicted of involuntary manslaughter is released from a psychiatric facility on the advice of his doctor. A series of murders swiftly follow. As the drama unfolds, the line between madness and sanity, as well as patient and doctor, becomes blurred.
Lau and producer Derek Yee are the movie’s only A-lister names (although Huang’s profile got a boost when it was announced he will tie the knot with actress Angelababy later this year). This lack of starpower means Insanity has been faring modestly at the box office. Beijing News said the movie earned only Rmb30 million ($4.8 million) in the first four days following its debut this month.
That looks even less impressive when you consider that audience turnout will have increased over the Tomb Sweeping Festival holiday last weekend. Strong sales so far this year have already seen industry takings break through the Rmb10 billion threshold in less than 100 days (it took 141 days in 2014).
However, Insanity is scoring stronger reviews from the critics in the Chinese newspapers. “Excellent story telling, full of unexpected twists. You can’t anticipate the end until the end,” Xinhua Entertainment marvelled, while a critic at Chengdu Economic Daily wrote more about the audience reaction. “A girl sitting in the front row kept screaming,” the reviewer reported.
Many expect Insanity will be a winner at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, and it has already been nominated in four categories, including best new director for David Lee Kwong-yiu, who is a Cornell University graduate.
In interviews Lee told reporters that he spent five years researching the subject matter. The movie’s producers also believed it was the right time to acknowledge mental illness more overtly, given that Chinese audiences have been showing a shift in interest away from historical dramas to more contemporary issues.
“When I took the Beijing subway, I could see the stress on people’s faces – even more so than in Hong Kong or Japan. Mental conditions are still a new topic for movies in China, and few directors have proved adept at handling it,” the producer Derek Yee told the South China Morning Post.
Lee added that the movie censors had no problem with Insanity as the film is “based on science and focused on humanity”.
“Insanity is a thriller but it is about the mental health of modern, urban people. Its primary goal is to relieve the pressure. From this angle it is a movie of significant meaning,” Xinhua Entertainment added. Certainly incidences of mental heath problems have been on the rise, with China’s breakneck growth and its rapid change cited as factors.
“The biggest contribution of Insanity is that it helps to raise public awareness and understanding of mental illness,” Shenzhen Urban Daily agreed, noting that the film has been released a month before the second anniversary of the Mental Health Law.
It is also the 12th anniversary of Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung’s suicide the newspaper noted. Suffering from acute depression, the actor jumped to his death from a city-centre hotel on April 1, 2003.
Perhaps the censors were more lenient because of more cases of suicide in the government ranks as well. According to Jiefang Daily, up to 112 Chinese officials have killed themselves since 2003. Many more suicides by civil servants will have gone unrecorded. Certainly, some may have wanted to avoid arrest in the intensifying anti-graft campaign. But others may have been suffering from mental illness and depression.
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