I watch a lot of films and find myself moved far less than this blog suggests. Supposing I was a true critic I would fill these pages with the good, the bad and the most shameful of all, the average. But of late I have found that the fiery lifeblood lying dormant in my veins to reawaken every few weeks upon the viewing of particular films, leading me to pour my goopy mess of emotions onto the keyboard and force my rekindled joy upon all who is willing to read.
Very much the same can be said about the film I want to talk about today. I saw it before my last article was composed, yet I haven’t found a way to interpret what it was that this film left me feeling. You see, it’s not a film I feel can be recommended so lightly, that I can throw at all I meet and urge them with every ounce of their being to love. In fact, I feel rather selfish about it in my own way. To happen upon it by chance, it truly was a treasure I had found. Yet to keep to myself, a work of such potency would be a crime against the human spirit and would bring shame to myself for it is frailty and longing, a creature all of its own that spoke so much to me.
It is, An Elephant Sitting Still by Hu Bo.
In critic’s circles, there are few to be found who were not enraptured by the film. It’s an awards darling. At face value it could be perceived as the film for filmmakers and film lover, something the general public would hardly feel inclined to approach. It’s an independent film from China, running at almost four hours long, equally as bleak as it is life-affirming, it’s incredibly political in its sensibilities whilst exploring the topics of suicide, depression, isolation, poverty and the human heart. They are all searching for something.
It’s a hard ask to expect anyone to approach this epic without some trepidation. On top of this mammoth task still, is the knowledge that this was director, Hu Bo’s first and last feature film, committing suicide shortly after completion at the age of twenty-nine. Its story becomes the swan song of a filmmaker capable of much gentility and grace despite the lofty themes without marring the quality of work, the promise of a talent lost.
Based upon a short story written by Hu Bo himself, it is a day in the life of four characters, existing in the city of Shijiazhuang. A teen, Bu, runs away from home after pushing the school bully down the stairs, leading to tragic consequences, leaving behind an abusive father and a finically unstable home. The brother of the bully, Cheng, seeks out the culprit, stalking the city in search of him whilst trying to come to terms with the suicide of his close friend. Meanwhile, Bu’s classmate Ling has fallen for their teacher. Finally, the is Mr. Wang, who adores his granddaughter, but is being forced from his home by his own son with the intention to give her a better future. They attempt to leave these lives behind and seek out a zoo in Manzhouli, Northern China, where it is fabled that an Elephant sits and ignores the world.
The school is rundown. The teachers cannot wait for it to be knocked down, to the new positions at the new building whilst their students will be distributed across the city to whatever schools will take them. Their futures are predetermined, as grey and unbecoming as the world they reside. A dog-eat-dog environment, where the ‘strong’ survive, – there is nowhere for these children to go. No money and no nurture in an economy incapable of reassuring families.
'There is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long. Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. I don’t know.' - Cheng
The older characters are trapped in circumstance. Rundown apartment complexes engulfing new builds, pristine and blinding amongst the ruins of a class being driven from their own homes, they must weave their way through the claustrophobic streets. Trains pass, a network of mundanity, screeching on the tracks as reliably unreliable as they appear and no true symbol of escape. The apathy of the spectators on the streets around them is haunting, unresponsive to their own cages, accepting. Just as we all are, never really connecting with one another. Yet the film does not entirely suffer under the weight of all this hopelessness. What it does is suffocate these characters enough to see them test their own restraints.
Hu Bo chooses to follow his characters, intimately close, tracking them. Stifling their space; reflecting the constraints of their own worlds. Moving around them, encircling them in their cages, he avoids stable shots and allows everything to be a little off-kilter. The characters are robbed of their privacy as we follow them, stripped of their own barriers. In moments the camera is behind them, where we see the back of their heads and one finds themselves wondering what lies in their expression. They look off into the distance and yet I felt the desire to intrude in that privacy whilst still feeling it said all it needed to say. And in the moment it matters most, in the final minutes of the film, Hu Bo pulls back. A wide that robs the audience the reactions of the characters we spent four hours with, standing in the pitch darkness of night, wholesome and freeing. Because that moment is for them.
I suppose it is such a universal story; lost people on the hunt for greater meaning and freedom from their overwhelming lives, seeking it in something both mysterious and alluring. That the Elephant does little more than sit, it begs the question why? The characters don’t seem to want to know, simply to find something capable of indifference or ignorance to the cruel world surrounding it. It could be a question of depression or serenity, what that Elephant endures, who can really say. Hu Bo asks this himself, a ballad that explores that desire for numbness to the world or escape from the numbness around them.
'There is simply no ideal life. It is only about choosing what kind of regrets you are willing to live with.' - Interview with Hu Bo (2017)
HuaLun’s striking soundtrack weaves this epic poem together, with isolated electric guitars, synth slow beats and thrumming melodies carry one scene to the next. A dream like continuity enhances each scene and characters, used sparsely but to great effect. Their crowning achievement however appears during its credits, a beautiful track with traditional drums and a gentle guitar hauntingly brought together by the ethereal chanting; a melody from what I’ve read in Youtube comments is a Gospel Choir from the Southwest Mountain area of China, singing a traditional song in Mandarin. This song feels rooted in the earth, grounding the film into its sense of humanism, and although I have been unable to source lyrics for this piece, I am reassured.
The journey for us is more significant than the destination, and whilst I struggled with the feeling I had when the credits rolled most notably for me, my breath caught. I’ve never experienced a reaction such as that to any film I’ve seen, one so harrowing in its melancholy. Did I feel as though I had been submerged with them? Mesmerized by the characters and their unsatisfying world? But I didn’t feel misery. His characters are stifled by people, family and friends who endure their own despondency. Meanwhile, they take action; resist in order to pursue a quest where hope is the driving force.
Hu Bo’s work is heartbreaking in its muted pain, a simulation of generational depression, honest and raw. The reserved characters only reflect a people disconnecting with their world for self-preservation, a feeling only too familiar to those suffering with their mental health. A 21st century tale, the director takes us on a restrained journey of escape, simple in its goal and powerful in its execution. To know we will never see more from this director brings true sorrow for he was a voice of a generation of Chinese cinema and for young filmmakers. Despite this, we have been left with a truly poignant story examining the symbolic chains of societal complacency against the naïve optimism of escapism. Somewhere out there we are all searching for our Elephant, what it can bring us could be redemption.
An Elephant Sitting Still is available to buy here.