Ruairí McCann on Hu Bo’s ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ (2018)
Within its four-hour runtime, An Elephant Sitting Still / Dà Xiàng Xídì Érzuò charts a single day and weaves its way around four different perspectives all living in a depressed, northern Chinese city. Two of them, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) and Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), are adolescents suffering catastrophic home lives and apparently destined for wage slavery. The third, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), who’s slightly older, is a young man alienated by his role as a gang leader. Yet, he complies out of obligation and his own inertia. The last is Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), who’s much older so he has a squandered life in retrospect.
Director and writer Hu Bo establishes these blighted souls and their routines and then has them cross paths, compelled by three acts of violence (a suicide, a scuffle which leads to serious injury and the mauling of a dog) and the promise of a spectacle – a rumour that within a zoo in the city of Manzhouli, there is an elephant who enjoys sitting still. For, unlike them who are regularly beaten down and tossed aside, isolated and peripatetic, this elephant can sit through wind and rain and abuse after abuse, unbroken.
Hu uses long takes governed by nimbly orchestrated steadicam not just to follow or observe but to wrap around the character’s bodies – to capture every detail of their personages. It visualises their alienation by keeping important action either off-screen or borderline illegible by its purposely tiny depth of field, turning people caught in its murk into thinning, ill-defined, wraiths haunting the background or the corners of the frame.
All this isn’t impressive enough on its own. What is, however, is how Hu shifts his form to address fluctuations in the film’s perspectives. Like in the scene where Wei Bu emerges from his room to sit down for a rushed breakfast; the camera follows him, hugging his back, until he takes a seat at the kitchen table perpendicular to his father (Guozhang Zhaoyan), a man with a volcanic temper that he compulsively exercises. As Mr Wei berates his son and the latter just takes it, the camera, which has settled on Bu in extreme close-up and in focus with his father blurred in the background, rises and then pivots to the left in other to capture and hover between both father and son who are now together, visible. Therefore, by the end of his shot, without losing track of Wei Bu and his oppressed state, the father is turned from an indistinct avatar of patriarchal violence, to someone who is still clearly unstable and tyrannical but now suddenly has a physical presence. It offers up newfound detail: his shabby state and jittery body language that allows us to build and recognise a complex human being.
It is easy to view this film as one soaked in misery (because it is) but then misinterpret it as interested only in wallowing at those lower depths. Given not just what is on screen but the intolerable circumstances under which the film was release; what was meant to be the accomplished opening opus of an exciting new artist is now both the beginning and the end, as Hu Bo, at the age of 29, took his own life shortly after the film’s completion.
However, this is not the trajectory on which his film is set. As soon as and the more the characters meet, Hu and their aim is clearly reaffirmation, not their mutual destruction. Evidence of this can be movingly seen when Wei Bu, who’s on the lam after his part in the aforementioned accident, tries to flog his treasured custom-made pool cue in order to get enough money for a bus ticket. He pitches to Wang Jin who, mindful of his financial problems, initially declines. Yet out of sympathy, and appreciation, he eventually relents and buys the cue. This physical embodiment of a rare moment of charity and compassion becomes a memento which Jin carries around like a lifeline for the rest of the film. Till it winds its way down to one of the cores of cinema and a requisite for maintaining one’s own pulse and sanity. That being the ineluctable need to be entwined with other people. To be reprieved or redeemed of your part in a world brimming with indifference and hostility by a rare gift of compassion and finish knowing that you have at least one moment of grace under your belt.
Hu Bo’s (successful) intention then is not explore every inch of these characters’ bathyspheres and leave it at that. Rather, it is to collate, unsparingly, every hardship so as to stress the subtle but powerful moments when the walls between these characters weaken and they can find some comfort in sharing each other’s pain. It is a connection casually prophesied roughly midway through the film; Wei Bu, suddenly calm, mutters: ‘Look around. Everyone’s alive.’
Screened as part of the 2019 Belfast Film Festival