Festival Roundup: AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (2018, dir. Hu Bo)

This series will highlight films that have played and will be playing at various international film festivals, from Berlinale in Germany or Locarno in Switzerland to Toronto International Film Festival or New York Film Festival. The first film under discussion makes had its US premiere at New Directors/New Films in April and has its Canadian premiere at TIFF next month.

Cormac McCarthy wrote of a “diverging equity” between experiences of beauty and pain in the world and the notion seems to have become one of some explanatory power for Hu Bo. With McCarthy, he appeared to concur that in history’s “headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower”— and An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu’s first and final feature film, is evidence of his acute comprehension of the dimensions of these concepts.

Were one to attempt a socio-economic interpretation of the film, one could readily understand the characters as dealing with the accumulated social fracture, generalised violence, and psychic trauma of the flowers that have seized the vision of those commanding the forces of production in China, from pursuit of national autarky under the Great Leap Forward and the power struggles that followed with the Cultural Revolution to the ongoing consequences of the uneven reform and opening up. The characters wrestle with all of this apparent historical abstraction in intertwined and often repressed ways. Imagine: a grandfather who knew the terror of the sixties and never lets it out, his children who grow up under this suppressed anger and fear, and the grandchild that develops with this redoubled anguish all around them. The arena for this, for multitude of geopolitical factors, is that of a third-world, developing nation emerging from poverty — the transition out of which has been notable and clear, but perhaps much too sparse as a general experience. It is this architecture that goes unspoken in the suffering of the film, because, among so many other reasons, can it even truly be spoken about?

With that brief soliloquy registered, it is now of course necessary to speak of the film more explicitly. An Elephant Sitting Still charts the stories of four people in a city of the northern Chinese province of Hebei as they intersect and culminate over the course of one day: Wei Bu on the run from consequences for injuring his bully; his friend Huang Ling whose relationship with a teacher becomes public; Yu Cheng, the brother of the bully and a local gangster, reeling from the effects of an affair he has with a friend’s wife; and the elderly Wang Jin facing banishment to a nursing home by his family due to financial constraints. Each character becomes compelled, as a result of their difficulties, by the story of a mythical elephant that is said to reside in the Russian-border resting town of Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia, where it remains disinterested in the people who fawn over it. Hu Bo crafts the film as four-hour tone poem, providing a thorough immersion in a particular, often buried, affective response to the speeds, intricacies, and intensities of modern Chinese existence. The film is a fiction but it comes all too close to capturing what happens every day and is felt in every way.

The director’s approach is cartographical, with the understanding that the map is not the territory; for example, there is no overt and exhaustive efforts to explain or lampoon the political or economic superstructure, but he does clearly capture the intersecting and frayed bonds between generations, the nature of violence resulting from social fragmentation and loss of meaning, and the corrosive effect of money fetishism among the poor and voiceless. The film charts the consequences of a society — from its young to its old — unable to comprehend or install precisely what may be believed in besides money and the benefits it is believed to garner. Hu captures a poverty of society and relation that is easing too slowly if at all, wherein he states it is “increasingly hard for us to have faith even in the tiniest of things, and the frustration from which becomes the hallmark of today’s society.” Characters throughout the film search for money, throw money at their problems, and accuse each other of blackmail because life becomes cheap when you can’t get off the bottom.

An Elephant Sitting Still is then, it could be said, almost oppressively located within this breakdown of meaning, but in this it never attempts the triteness of assigning simple fault to a government — an act much too rarefied — or the perverseness of blaming its characters. Much like its protagonists, the film appears to be deeply searching its frames for ways out of the situation, for new modes of relation that lead somewhere other than nowhere. Hu’s technical and affective immersion of the viewer in the world is too some extent a critique of distant, idealist responses to the pain of these characters; even as the viewer is tasked with making legible the historical and political nature of their wounds. The formal decision to favor the tracking shots in which the camera roves, establishing complex geographies of landscape and emotion, has the effect of locating the viewer inside the film in an immanent sense; philosophically assuming a materialist form that makes immediate the tangible nature of the problems.

Responses to the film have often highlighted what is described as its nihilistic or fatalistic edge, an edge seemingly reinforced by the director’s suicide following the completion of post-production and his own words about the film itself: “In the end, everyone loses what he or she values the most.” Yet, there is arguably an insurgency within the film, one of characters fighting a cold world in which people’s dislocations from one another experience compound upon compound; one interested in how to find a way for life to still be possible when there is mutual recognition of dissatisfaction and pain. The film ends — in a never before used wide shot — on the first presentation of community and trust, which possesses its own immanent and materialist dimension: new modes of relation are established when one is not alone in confronting and sharing the loss of what is valued most. It’s a dialectical understanding and perhaps a paradoxical intuition, but there’s a suggestion that the future is something the film hasn’t given up on and, without meaning to speak out of turn, I happen to think that neither perhaps had Hu.

Matthew McCracken
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Matthew McCracken

Lives and works in China where he teaches English, watches movies, and fails to finish the books he starts to read. ☭
Matthew McCracken
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