Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Movie Review: An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bo Hu.
Written by: Bo Hu.
Starring: Yu Zhang (Yu Cheng), Yuchang Peng (Wei Bu), Uvin Wang (Huang Ling), Congxi Li (Wang Jin), Xiangrong Dong (Dean), Jing Guo (Dean's wife), Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang (Bu's father), Miaomiao He (Cheng's friend's Mother), Wei Kong (Jin's son-in-law), Yixin Kong (Jin's granddaughter), Binyuan Li (Scapler), Danyi Li (Jin's daughter), Suyun Li (Bu's mother), Zhenghui Ling (Li Kai), Jianmin Liu (Bu's uncle), Wang Ning (Ling's mother), Shunzi (Cheng's mother), Chaobei Wang (Cheng's friend), Xueyang Wang (Cheng's friend's wife), Xiaolong Zhang (Yu Shuai), Yanmanzi Zhu (Cheng's lover). 
It’s tempting to view a piece of art made by someone just before they decided to end their own life as a suicide note. It may be even more tempting in a case like Bo Hu’s An Elephant Sitting Still because we know the backstory of what happened – that Hu adapted his own novel to the screen, and delivered the cut we can now see – nearly 4 hours long – and know that he was feuding with the producers of the film who wanted him to cut out half the film and deliver a two-hour cut – something that put stress on Hu, who likely already had mental health issues. It’s more tempting still given that An Elephant Sitting Still has not just one, but two suicides in its runtime, including one where the character says “The world is a disgusting place” before shooting himself in the head.
Knowing the backstory of An Elephant Sitting Still makes the film all the sadder – but I don’t think it either makes the film lesser or more knowing it. The film stands on its own – and should stand on its own, the most respectful thing to do is to judge the piece of art on its own terms. An Elephant Sitting Still is a tough sit – it is a dark movie, about four interconnected characters over the span of one day, where all of them feel trapped, beaten down by life, with perhaps no possible escape. And yet, as despairing a portrait of modern China as An Elephant Sitting Still is – it isn’t one with no hope, and I would point out that neither of the people who commit suicide are among the four main characters the film follows. They all find a reason to keep going – at least at the end of the movie, which is perhaps the end of the worst day in all of their lives.
Hu doesn’t pull his punches in the film, and he also wastes no time in letting you know what kind of story this is going to be. In the first hour of the film you will have one of the two suicides, a dog being killed by another dog, and a dead grandma – and that’s just for starters. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that it doesn’t simply devolve into misery porn – of simply piling one horrible thing after another onto its characters in a way that some movies do trying to convince you that they are “serious works of art”.
The four main characters in question are Wei Bu, a high school student (the one with the dead grandma) who has a horrible home life, who along with his friend is being picked on by a bully. Wei Bu will get into a fight with that bully over a stolen cell phone (he doesn’t know all the details of said phone, or why his best friend is so adamant about getting it back until late in the film) – and that fight goes too far, and the bully is seriously hurt. The bullies brother is Yu Cheng, a mid-level gangster, who doesn’t much care for his brother, but he is after all still his brother, so vengeance is inevitable. But he’s going through his own problems as well – he slept with his friend’s wife, and when he caught them together, he throws himself off his balcony, killing himself – making Yu question everything about himself. Then there is Huang Ling, a kind of would-be love interest for Wei Bu – but she’s already sleeping with the school’s Vice Dean, in an effort to get away from her own horrible home life, with a mother who doesn’t much care what she does. Finally, there is Wang Jin, a veteran and retiree, who is worried his daughter and son-in-law is trying to pack him off to a retirement home – essentially abandoning him, and he worries that he won’t be able to take his dog with him. He lives in the same rundown apartment complex that Wei Bu does.
In a way then, An Elephant Sitting Still is one of those movie about interconnections – but it’s not done in a cheap way like something like Crash, but something deeper. Hu slowly brings the characters together through coincidences, but the kind that make sense. You get the impression that he could focus on any four characters in this gray, industrial town, and the results wouldn’t be all that different. The title comes from an unseen elephant that all the characters have heard of (sometimes, from the other characters) – who lives in the far away city of Manzhouli – everyone comes to see the elephant, who refuses to eat or even move. The characters all relate to that sort of thing. Like the elephant, they are victims of this oppressive society – one that clearly doesn’t care about any of them, no matter who they are.
I cannot imagine a shorter version of An Elephant Sitting Still. It’s the type of film whose length is one of its assets – Hu allows conversations to play out over the span of many minutes – often with long breaks between the words being spoken, but shot in unbroken takes. You cannot really shorten any of these scenes down, without destroying them – and the cumulative effect of all those hours is very much needed. The film looks great – it is a grey, dull image throughout – but its appropriate for the subject matter.
It is sad that we will never see another movie by Bo Hu – who only got to make the one, before whatever drove him to end his life. This is a major statement by him though – and a lasting one. It’s the best debut film I’ve seen all year – which makes it all the sadder that we’ll never see what Bo Hu would have turned into as a filmmaker. There is a little bit of Jia Zhang-ke to him – also a little Bela Tarr. But he was a unique filmmaker, and I guess if you’re only going to make one statement as a filmmaker, it may as well be one as great as this.

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