Down under the endless heavenly grey sky of the industrial city in northern China, the fates of the four individuals will be interwoven in one day filled with infancy, violence, murder and despair for a better tomorrow. The only thing that connects all these people in a network of misery, is their fascination with the modern legend that there is a circus in Manzhouli where an elephant has surrendered to the bewitched life. Whether the circus staff feeds the elephant or tries to physically encourage it to move, the elephant does not respond, it simply sits in one place and does not move.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a story of the daily life of the middle class in disarray, about the desire for success and the tragic consequences of depression and social pressure. The author of this brilliant four-hour dramatic act was twenty-nine years old Chinese director Hu Bo. For his work, the young director was awarded at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival Award of the FIPRESCI Jury and a special mention in the category of Best film debut. However, this is also his last film because Hu Bo took his own life a few months before the film was completed in post-production.
The first of the four characters that the film follows is Yu Cheng, a local petty criminal who is having an affair with his best friend’s girlfriend. When Yu’S friend learns of the infusibility of the two closest people in his life he decides to jump out the window of his own apartment. Because of what just happened in front of his eyes, Yu is trying to wash away guilt by seeking meaning and deeper reasons in a friend’s suicide.
Wasteland and Insignificance
Another character who wants to escape the misery of life is Wei Bu, a seventeen-year-old boy abused by the family and the school bullies. In an attempt to defend himself and his friend against the school bully things end up bad and Wei soon has to flee from his toxic city. The remaining two central characters of the film are Huang Ling, Wei’s school friend, who is in a secret affair with the school principal and Lao Jin, a pensioner whom his own son wants to send to a nursing home to try to build a better life for himself.
A large portion of the film we have the opportunity to spend with each character individually, while wandering the streets, trying to clear their minds and solve their problems. In addition to their main narrative lines, we get a chance to follow a few small casual stories (Lao and the White Dog, Yu and the finer criminals, Huang and her relationship with her mother). Every time the paths of character cross, the film rises to a whole new emotional-mental level. The meeting of the central character feels like a catalyst, the action suddenly moves to prosper, and the characters have the opportunity to examine themselves and get out of the conversation as a completely different person.
The Interaction of the character outside the central four is perfectly reduced to the necessary minimum contextualization of the socio-political situation of the place. One example of this is a conversation where the headmaster of the school releases its position as an educator and descends to low social levels, with a smile saying to Wei: “You will all end up as salesmen at street stands”.
In the bright colours of suffering
When it comes to the visual aspect of the film, the first thing that occupies attention is certainly the use of cold-colour filters, which correspond to the overall feeling of the film. However, the sets themselves of the concrete wasteland of the city ruins are located on the opposite side of the spectrum, mostly derived in a series of warm colours, hence the contrast they build in combination with filters adds to the intensity of what we observe and experience.
There are also scenes often made as a tracking shot from a single frame that can stretch for about twenty minutes, further bringing us closer to the characters, giving us time to get into the environment and “Breathe in”, become a part of it. Above all, it is impressive that the way the characters are arranged in the frame, the division of the frame with walls and other objects/barriers, are independent of the extremely large length of the scene.
Poetics of contrast
Particularly interesting is the element of the film poetic contrasts that permeating through all aspects of this work. Although the events presented in the film are gloomy, filled with misery and melancholy, in contrast to the musical background made of ambient electronic sounds, it manages to raise the atmosphere. Contrast is also evident at the level of emotion – the characters that feel bad and show emotional weakness are not someone we often see on the move, while for Hu Bo it seems that movement is the only thing that keeps them alive.
On the narrative level, the film is infused with a series of accidental deadly situations, against which there is a series of characters on the verge of suicide that abate. Certainly, there is also the most obvious opposite, although the environment surrendered and embraced life in the wasteland of Wei, Yu, Huang and Lao invested an enormous effort to outgrow their environment and ironically, went to Manzhouli to see the elephant that surrendered.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a work that was made strictly from the severe suffering of an individual that the environment was unable to notice. This extremely intimate work of Hu Bo will surely remain recorded in film history, as the work of a new author whose incredible work we will never again have the opportunity to see.