An Elephant Sitting Still | Da Xiang Xi Di Er Zuo (2018) *****
Dir.: Hu Bo; Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi, Ling Zhenghui, Zhnag Xialong; China 2018, 230 min.
Written, directed and edited by the Chinese director Hu Bo, his award-winning debut is an immersive masterpiece and also his last film: he committed suicide at the age of just 29, just before the end of shooingt.
The action takes place during a single suspenseful day, from dawn to dusk, where the train to the Northern Chinese city of Manzhouli is set to depart. The only noticeable feature in this miserable backwater is an elephant, who, according to rumour, simply sits and watches the world go by.
The symbolic creature draws all sort of people from the surrounding villages: There is young Wei (Yuang), abused by his venal father who father lost his job for taking bribes. Wei’s friend Li (Zhenghui) is accused by Yu (Xiaolong) of stealing his mobile ‘phone. But Li protests his innocence, and Wei defends him. At school, Yu corners the two boys on a staircase and Wei is seriously injured after a scuffle.
This is a community on its knees and at each other’s throats, forced into crime and misdemeanour by harsh economic circumstances. The sins of the parents are meted out on their kids. Wei is in love with Huang (Yuwen), but her troubled mother has projected her own fear of life on the young woman causing problems for them both causing Huang to cheat on him with the vice-dean of the school whose luxury apartment seems to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of city. But their secret relationship has been outed by Li, who’s phone images of Huang and the teacher, have now gone viral on the internet. The teacher throws Huang out of his flat, blaming her for jeopardising his career. At home Huang is hassled by the teacher’s wife, who accuses her of ruining her marriage. And so it goes on, a series of interconnected stories of misery, mistrust and pain. A poetic epilogue sees Wang, his granddaughter, Huang and Wei at the train station: their train to Manzhouli has been cancelled, the journey has to be taken by several bus rides.
Unfolding like one of Balzac’s novels from La Condition Humaine, Hu Bo keeps the narrative going, always finding new angles, plot lines and twists. Everything is elegantly elliptical, as the main protagonists meet again under new circumstances, completely out of their control. They are always in motion, with the city being the backdrop to their rat like existence. The young people are certainly the victims of their elders, but have not learned anything from them, in their alienated indolence.
Chao Fan’s camera pans relentlessness over the ugliness of it all, tracking the protagonists through the jungle of hideousness like a prowling beast. Even Bela Tarr, always on the lookout for a backdrop of utter desolation, would be impressed by the machinations of Elephant; and there are shades of the Hungarian director’s Werckmeister Harmonies in the the lack of substantial interactions between these characters who seem to glide through the swamp of the city without finding an identity: nothing sticks to them, they are all drowning. Often Fan lets us see only what he wants to: the background is often distorted in a filmic milky way. And most impressive of all, we never notice the length of the substantial running time: Hu Bo invites us to live with these characters, and we become part of their world.
A monumental undertaking, to be remembered as a part of film history and with utter regret for being Hu Bo’s sole feature output. A team of China’s FIRST Film Festival, who co-funded Elephant, finished the saga of despair and alienation the way Hu Bo had envisaged it. Elephant won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival (Forum section) along with a string of awards at Festivals all over the world including The Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, Asia’s equivalent to the Oscars. The copyright of An Elephant Sitting Still is now with his parents. AS
ON RELEASE FROM 12 DECEMBER 2018 .