I came across a brief write up by one of my acquaintances on Facebook a few days back. “…Asia is the place where cinema is still breathing a fresh whiff of significant cinema – something which current European cinema is visibly lacking!”, it concluded. He listed a bunch of directors from different parts of Asia who are shining with their works today. But what caught my eyes was this line: “Sadly, I couldn’t add Bo Hu’s name.” I asked him if it’s because of the fact Hu Bo is no more. His answer was ‘yes’.
‘An elephant sitting still” is the first and the last feature film by Chinese director Hu Bo. He killed himself during the final editing procedure of the film, in 2017, at the age of 29. The film came out in 2018 and immediately gained attention from world audience. Hu Bo was a student of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian auteur.
The film opens up in a morning with a story about an elephant, narrated in a voice of one of the characters. In a northern Chinese city called Manzhouli, an elephant sits still all day long. People tries to poke it with different means but the elephant doesn’t pay any attention. It just sits there, unmoved by all sort of circumstances. The film goes on with four stories, somewhat intertwined. All the characters are in some dreadful situation or eventually find themselves in a dreadful situation over the course of the day; death, abusive family, school bullies and more. The entire backdrop, the cityscape is pale in color. Most of the time the characters are framed at a close up or mid-close up distance in this pale backdrop in a way that everything except them are out of focus, blur yet fully present almost like cobweb with hopeless existence.
Initially, all the long takes and the way the camera follows the characters were reminding me of ‘Elephant’ by Gus Van Sant. But later on I realized that they hardly have any similarities. In ‘Elephant’ all those long following shots are, although in an unbiased manner, preparation of the final climactic violence. In Hu Bo’s film, violence shows up many times throughout the film but in a completely different way. All of them occur on screen yet we as audience can’t see it properly. The camera shows us mainly the witnessing characters and their reactions. But talking of reaction, it has some unusual sense in it; as if they knew of it beforehand, as if they were ready for the aftermath. As the film progresses, it become clear that there is no way out for them. But is that all? Probably not. As situation becomes too claustrophobic, they start thinking of to go to Manzhouli to witness the elephant. We see a poster of the ‘sitting elephant’ from a circus and for me that brought back the memory of the dead whale in Bela Tarr’s ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’. At the end we see three of them finally set out for the journey. The train to Manzhouli is cancelled but their desperation for something different make them to travel in alternative ways. So they took a bus. The bus is packed with other passengers. Are they too trying to get out from the cobweb? We don’t know. The final frame is dark but camera is placed at some distant. The headlight of the bus is the only source of light, but curiously that’s the first time when the frame is large enough, large enough for the characters to breathe around. And then the film closes with a trumpet of an elephant.
The film may remind you of another one of Bela Tarr’s film:‘The Turin Horse’. In an iconic scene Tarr showed the father and the daughter, with all their belongings and their ‘given-up-on-living’ horse abandoned the farm house to go somewhere new and liveable. The camera stood there as they slowly disappeared at the horizon and after sometimes reappeared again as they come back. If I remember correctly, Tarr was asked about the significance of this scene in reply of which Tarr said “May be there is nowhere to go”.
Hu Bo concludes “An elephant sitting still” in a more ambiguous way, I suppose. The characters may or may not find something different but nevertheless, Hu Bo’s death is looming over the film in a very uncanny way. In its three hours and fifty minutes of run time, the film carries the pessimism of its director. A pessimism, if not about the human existence itself, then at least about a life in a modern industrial city where the influencing structure is breaking down and changing its meaning rapidly in a destructive fashion. Do I agree with the weight of the pessimism? The answer would be ‘No’. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the brilliance of Hu Bo, who weaved it altogether with such mastery. And maybe every now and then we should bear that much weight of pessimism, just to re-evaluate ourselves.