The Downward Spiral: Hu Bo’s “An Elephant Sitting Still”
An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) is tainted by death. Director Hu Bo, also an esteemed novelist, killed himself at just 29 years old in October, after prolonged arguments with the film’s producers regarding creative control, making this disconsolate, four-hour opus his feature-length debut, as well as his swan song. (The film was finished posthumously, with the rights returning to his family.) His premature death haunts the story like an unsound apparition. One watches the film, a miserable and extraordinary endeavor, painful and profound, as it trundles along at a torpid, woebegone pace, unable to disassociate the filmmaker’s death from the desolation of his final testament.
Hu weaves together, slowly and deliberately, four narrative threads, each concerned with a life that has seemingly reached a dead end. A man throws himself out of a window, landing face-down on the concrete. His death is witnessed by his only friend, the hoodlum Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu), who has been sleeping with his wife. We see the man enter the frame, address Yang, and then exit the frame on the other side. Yang watches with trepidation. We only ascertain what has happened in the next shot when the man appears, out of focus, splayed on the ground, before Yang gallops off in fear. Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), tormented by his boorish father at home, pushes a school bully down a staircase and runs off. (The bully turns out to be Yang’s brother.) His classmate, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), on whom Wei has a crush, is sleeping with the Vice Dean of their school and suffers the anxiety of her emotionally abusive mother at home. Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), an older man living on a pension, is being sent to a nursing home by his son. His only consort is his dog.
China has suffered an economic downturn, and all of these lower-class denizens are consequently stricken with financial hardship. Their lives are dictated by money, influenced by the lives of each other. It’s a film of action and reaction, before and after. The economy dips, so do their lives. These are damaged people reacting to turmoil. In one scene, Wang walks his dog, slowly moving along grayscale streets; later, a wild dog approaches Huang, who picks up a baseball bat to scare it off. That same dog subsequently mauls to death Wang’s dog, though Hu keeps the camera focused on Wang’s grief-stricken face (the film’s violence always occurs offscreen just beyond the scope of the frame as acts of malice committed in the periphery). What if Huang had beaten the dog to death? Would that act of violence have spared Wang pain? Violence can, Hu posits, have a purpose, but so can it take away purpose — violence committed against others, against one’s self. When Wang approaches the murderous dog’s owners, they respond with aggressive apathy, with threats. Later, the dog owner repeatedly kicks Wei to the ground. Tormentors go unpunished. Humans are as cruel as untamed dogs. “That asshole,” a background character says at one point. He could be describing everyone in the world as Hu sees it. This economically ravaged city comprises bullies and broken people, and sometimes the bullies are broken too.
An Elephant Sitting Still is not one of those “we are all connected” films; rather, it strives to show how economic desperation is widespread, and how suffering knows no bias. There’s associative poetry in the editing, in the match cuts, and the long, meandering Steadicam shots that recall, in their length and sorrowful banality, Béla Tarr. Wang’s head hanging low suddenly becomes Yang’s, as billows of smoke rise from his cigarette. Shots following behind Wei abruptly cut to the same kind of shot, one long one, following Huang.
More than halfway through the movie, all four characters hear of an elephant in Manzhouli, a major land port of entry city that borders Russia in the Northeast section of China. The stoical elephant appears to have given up on life, much like the characters — like Hu. There is no action or reaction, no before or after. It remains the same: stationary, complacent, as if in denial of its own corporeal needs. It doesn’t eat, it doesn’t sleep. It just exists. In this elephant the forlorn find a semblance of solace. The serenity of the unmoving animal beckons them, and their lives coalesce as they all search for a quietus to their suffering. The elephant cannot survive like this. Maybe it shouldn’t.
Hu, who wrote, edited, and directed, imbues An Elephant Sitting Still with a quiet nihilism. His outlook is so bleak, so pessimistic that one struggles to not read the entire ordeal as an extended goodbye to a world that he no longer felt well in. He plays with shallow focus, keeping characters close to the camera in the foreground legible, while action occurs blurred and ambiguous in the background. Using medium shots (one third of the frame will often feature a face while other characters take up the rest), close-ups, and a perpetually chilly hue, he sustains a mood of claustrophobia that reflects the sense of economic desperation afflicting the characters. The city is permeated by an ashen sallowness. It is dismal and gray, chilly, all cramped interiors, bellicose fathers haranguing sons, and mothers stepping on daughters’ birthday cakes. The sky is anemic. The malaise of disenfranchised Chinese youth and the forgotten elderly hangs over everything like a funeral veil. They have nothing to look forward to — lives as street cart vendors, being sent off to nursing homes when they become a financial burden. Life will not get better for them here.
Assiduous attention is paid to details, to minute sensory experiences — sounds of snow crunching underfoot, packing tape being crinkled and torn, boots on wooden floors, flattened bicycle tires flopping along concrete, and the sizzle of a cigarette’s last drag. Reverb-heavy guitars drift ethereally in, usually accompanying characters walking aimlessly. The languid realism and length of the film bring to mind Dostoevsky, that master existentialist, whose doorstop novels often depicted the Sisyphean violence of human follies, the unalloyed dread of simply existing in a modern world. “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive,” he wrote, “but in finding something to live for.” In the elephant, these characters find something: They find a creature who has figured out a cure for existence.
As part of New Directors/New Films, An Elephant Sitting Still plays in New York City at the Museum of Modern on April 1 and at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 8.