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 who killed himself during the final editing procedure of the film, in 2017, at 29. The film came out in 2018 and immediately gained attention from the 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. Most of the time the characters are framed at a closeup or mid-closeup distance in this pale backdrop in a way that everything except them are out of focus, blur yet fully present almost like a cobweb with hopeless existence.
Initially, all the long takes and the way the camera follows the characters are a reminder of ‘Elephant’ by Gus Van Sant at first glance. But later on, I realize that they hardly have any similarities. In ‘Elephant’ all those long following shots are, although impartially, preparation of the final climactic violence. In Hu Bo’s film, the violence shows up many times throughout the film, but in a completely different way. All of them occur on-screen; Yet we, as the audience, can’t see them properly. The camera predominantly shows the witnessing characters and their reactions. But speaking of reactions, they, too, have some unusual sense in them; as if they know of it beforehand, as if they are ready for the aftermath. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that there is no way out for them. But is that all? Well, not actually. As the situation becomes too claustrophobic, they start thinking of going to Manzhouli to witness the elephant. We see a poster of the ‘sitting elephant’ from a circus and that brings back the memory of the dead whale in Bela Tarr’s ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’. In the end, we see three of them finally set out for the journey. The train to Manzhouli is canceled but their desperation for something different makes them travel in alternative ways. So they take a bus. The bus is packed with other passengers. Are they too trying to get out of the cobweb? We don’t know. The final frame is dark butthe camera is placed at some distance. 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 the trumpet of an elephant.
The film may remind you of another one of Bela Tarr’s films: ‘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 farmhouse 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; to which he replied: “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 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 way. 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.