Ironically or not, the national film culture that has best represented post-millennial capitalist malaise has been China’s. Many, including me, will credit or blame Jia Zhangke with this development, but it’s really a function of the Peoples’ Republic’s almost schizophrenic approach to economic relativism, the idea that a fully communist regime can adapt market solutions to social policy. The latest piece of evidence proving how pointless this approach has been is Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, a nearly four-hour exercise in raging against walls. The movie is set in a town in northeast China that was once an important mining center and which now seems desperate to find any use for itself. This desperation is mirrored in the lives of four characters looking for a way out their difficulties—and out of the town—and not having any success.
Most of these difficulties involve violence. A high school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), is badgered by his underemployed, self-pitying father to move out of the house to live with his grandmother because he doesn’t want the expense any more, though he might as well be saying he just hates the sight of him. On the other side of this generational divide, elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) resides on the balcony of his daughter, who is pressuring him to enter a nursing home so she can afford to move with her family to a better apartment. Another student, Huang Ling (Yuwen Wang), is always at odds with her mother. Interestingly, the most sympathetic character is the gang boss who dreams of visiting the titular pachyderm residing in a zoo in Manchuria, impressed by the rumor that the animal has refused to eat or even move. By remaining motionless, the elephant is seen as the ultimate rebel.
Since three of the characters live in the same deteriorating building, there’s a claustrophobic element to their suffering, but even when the action moves outdoors the grey nothingness works to make it all feel like a giant prison of the mind. The movie takes place over the course of a single day, as each character makes his or her move to escape fates that are partially their own fault but mainly the work of forces beyond their control. As days go, this one is uncommonly full of incident, including evictions, murder, suicide, and blackmail. With the exception of one shocking scene involving a baseball bat, the violence is kept off screen, but that doesn’t diminish the effects that it has on the progress of the stories.
In the end, what makes Elephant so extraordinary is how unpredictable it is while at the same time compelling. Despite the odds against them, these forlorn souls try to achieve some measure of peace in an environment where nothing seems to work as it should. It’s perhaps adding too much to this depressing tone to mention that the director killed himself after completing the film, which only found a distributor and worldwide recognition thanks to admiring foreign filmmakers. The movie wouldn’t be any less powerful if that intelligence weren’t at large, but given what Hu Bo was trying to achieve, it’s worth knowing.
In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
An Elephant Sitting Still home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Ms. Chu Yanhua and Mr. Hu Yangzhen