By Adam Morley (Bristol, UK)
Pity tends to be an egocentric exercise. We are so embroiled in our own troubles that we barely consider those around us. For all we know, they could be desperate and stultified. How many people persist in their miserable ruts with the only wan flicker of hope that today will be different? These are just some of the questions provoked by An Elephant Sitting Still, Bo Hu’s epic four hour chronicle of despondent egotists, and the quest of four aimless souls to escape the cycle of desolation, ennui, and familial turmoil during one fateful day. Their habitat is a colourless Chinese settlements, an urban cluster of cramped, dilapidated tenements with peeling wallpaper and old duvets covering gaps in concrete walls. The town is suffused with a hazy grey pallor, creating an aura of loneliness and insignificance. The inhabitants rarely engage with each other, are isolated nodes, languishing in a town that has all the vitality of a limp cadaver.
In the nearby city of Manzhouli, there is a zoo where an elephant sits, motionless, oblivious to the world and its distractions. Some residents describe it with mystical reverence, as if it were a bestial incarnation of the Buddha, and wish to see it in person. Their motivations are never explained. Do they anticipate inspiration, enlightenment, or just an amusing diversion? Maybe they just want to meet someone they can relate to. Such a pilgrimage might have remained unfeasible, until a series of tragedies converts the pipe dream into a tangible option. After accidentally hospitalising a school bully, Wei Bu (Yuchang Peng) plans to escape his doldrums and start afresh in nearby Manzhouli. The bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), conducts a perfunctory search for the culprit, assisted by his burly cronies, but Cheng is disinterested. He feels responsible for his friend’s suicide, having slept with his girlfriend, and similarly yearns for a new beginning.
They both desire to see the elephant – both are dismissed as delusional. Cheng’s ex-lover sniggers and calls him crazy. Bu asks his friend Huang Ling (Uvin Wang) to elope with him, but she admonishes him for his immature fantasies. She has problems of her own, having formed an illicit companionship with the school Dean. Like all the adults in this town, the Dean scolds the younger generation for their naïve optimism. To them, life has always been wretched and fruitless, and suffering is an integral part of the whole episode. Many of the parents are abusive and vitriolic, rebuking their children for the slightest transgressions. As with all nihilists, they take pride in their loneliness, martyring themselves for bearing their dejection so bravely. Their offspring are not necessarily scapegoats, but they are treated little better than verbal punchbags. The generational enmity flows upwards as well – Wang Yin (Congxi Li) is a spry pensioner on the verge of eviction from his own apartment, as his daughter wants more space for her new family.
Like everyone else, Yin believes his hardship is exclusive. The characters stubbornly refuse to empathise or alleviate each other’s suffering. They are solipsistic misfits who, in sometimes vituperative language, eulogise their own hardships and inveigh against those who believe their misery is comparable. This disconnect is encapsulated in the Hua Lan’s poignant score: The main theme consists of grungy guitar chords overlaid with sober synth strains: the angst of youth with the resignation of adulthood – two immiscible layers of noise refusing to harmonise or cohere. The protagonists encounter each other following the incidents of the day, and are later unified by their shared realisation that existential anguish is not a private phenomenon. It is not a trivial discovery – indeed, it takes moments of great violence to jolt them out of their torpor. This is a film of great anger, but anger which is rarely channelled purposefully, except as fuel to sustain the egotism of the characters.
The film is a clenched fist that delicately unfurls each finger only to clamp shut upon contact. For a debut feature, the maturity and focus is staggering. Bo Hu was already a published writer (the film is adapted from a story in his book Huge Crack), which shows in his intimate style. He has the patience and compassion of a novelist, shadowing his subjects with long, unbroken shots that reflect the nature of their existences – monotonous, interminable, and stagnant. They are centred in a shallow frame with the outside world obscured into the background, and their respective antagonists consigned to the blurred edges of the screen. By the conclusion, we have internalised their frustrations, and feel almost as if we have participated in the events first-hand. Maybe Bo Hu knew these lives too well – he committed suicide on 17 October 2017. His death is an incalculable loss to international cinema, but he has bequeathed us a near masterpiece.
In the wake of an artistic suicide, we tend to treat their compositions as windows into their “tormented psyche”, dissecting every camera angle as if conducting an autopsy. However, An Elephant Sitting Still is not an auteuristic showcase. It is a tale of profound humanity, in which we explore the lives of humans desperate to curtail their destructive descent. It asks us to consider, rather than commiserate. It is a gruelling experience – perhaps An Elephant Sitting Still is too long, but every frame feels necessary, contributing to a bewildering yet subtly transformative finale. You might only watch this movie once, but once is enough, because it transcends the peculiarities of its subjects, and illuminates a dark corner of the human condition that would otherwise remain in shadow.