Thursday, November 08, 2018

229. The late Chinese director Bo Hu’s debut and final film “Da xiang xi die er zuo ” (An Elephant Sitting Still) (2018) (China): A realistic film on the lives of the marginal urban population in China, a perspective rarely presented to foreigners, based on a novel written by the director

It is not easy to sit through any feature film that is nearly 4 hours long; more so if the characters in the film are dour, unexceptional, and behave like the dregs of society. An Elephant Sitting Still would challenge the average viewer to keep on watching the principal characters whose actions are abhorrent, whose views are negative, and whose reactions are slow. What keeps the fatigued viewer to persist in watching the long film is the unusual subject revealed in the initial few minutes of the film: an elephant that is sitting still in a city in China as part of a circus but eats the food offered to it. You keep watching the film trying to figure out the connection between the host of anti-heroes in the film and the elephant—which becomes clear only in the final sequence of the film. (The film is on show at the Denver Film Festival)

Two school kids, Bu and Ling, meet at a monkey-feeding cage,
where the monkeys keep a low profile

An Elephant Sitting Still belongs to a wave of Chinese films (e.g., Jia Zhang-ke’s  A Touch of Sin) in recent years  that deals with the lopsided growth of the Chinese economy which leads to isolated violent actions by those who feel  deprived of any hope for a change in their life, however much they aspire and dream for a better deal . The temperament of the film is nihilistic to the core—wives cheat on their husbands; friends betray friends; sons value their offspring more than their parents; dogs run off from their caring human families and seek refuge with strangers; teachers/deans have sex with their students; grown-up men kill dogs that have done them no harm; touts sell fake railway tickets; when you possess valid rail tickets, the  trains get cancelled; people burn garbage in the open, close to tall, residential buildings; violent acts in schools are not reported to the police as the consequences are worse... The list goes on. It is the myth of the Sisyphus—trying to climb a mountain that you will never be able surmount.

“I don’t like anybody. The world is quite disgusting. They are afraid of you, if you kill.”--Words of a schoolboy in the film after shooting a thug and before committing suicide

Exploited school girl Ling turns violent 

It is not surprising that the director Bo Hu committed suicide soon after completing his debut film and the publishing of his novel on which the film is based. The film "reads" like a suicide note.

Bo Hu had written the original script of the film based on his own book Huge Crack  (written under his pen name Hu Qian and published in 2017, a year before the film was made) evidently noticing the myriad problems of the lower middle class in modern day China. A well-meaning bright student has to deal with bullies in school and parents who do not encourage or appreciate him at home. Most young people look at their parents for inspiration; but what can you do, when you find out that one of your parents was caught taking bribes? The late Bo Hu had studied filmmaking and this debut magnum opus seems to have been stuffed with his perceptions of things wrong in his world in the 29 years that he lived on this planet.

Dogs seek shelter with strangers like Wang (above): not expecting
strange behaviour from them

In the film An Elephant Sitting Still there are two suicides, a killing of a dog, a mortal accident caused by a push, and several killings of human beings by individuals driven to the edge of despair. The varied age groups involved in the bleak and dark narrative range from teenage school kids, to young men and women starting their lives by investing in an apartment, an elderly man being pushed into a retirement home where even retired army generals are not happy, and an elderly grandmother lying dead in her tenement because her family does not visit her.

If you are standing on a tall building’s balcony, what would come to your head?"
--Words spoken by a thug, Chen, whose best friend jumped off a tall building’s balcony
“I would think what else can I do?” --Response from a school kid Bu, who has unintentionally killed Chen's brother (who in turn was bullying him) by pushing him backwards at the top of the stairs of his school, echoing the very advice given to Chen earlier by the woman he loves

The importance of the film rests solely on Bo Hu’s intentions to discuss the social problems of China today without making it look like an overt criticism of the Government. It is clearly inferred in the film that the police is more feared rather than serving as a source of protection from evil forces. The people who kill are mostly aware that the law will ultimately catch up with them. But An Elephant Sitting Still is not a film that deals with the wages of killing; it is a film that wonders if there is a way out of this juggernaut of negative socio-political matrix for someone who wants to live a new life, turn a new page, irrespective of their physical age.  It is a film of people who wonder “what else they can do.

So who are trying to witness the strange elephant with an unusual behaviour? A retired man with his school-going granddaughter and two teenage school kids, possibly in love, with human blood on their hands make their pilgrimage to the metaphorical elephant that eats without moving. Any intelligent viewer will grasp what the pachyderm stands for.  Nietzsche would have smiled at this film, if he was alive. Perhaps so would have Soren Kierkegaard (recalling his concepts of 'levelling' when compared to the gradual leveling of the hubris of the alpha-male Cheng in An Elephant Sitting Still) and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in finding a soulmate in Bo Hu. It is not the film that is important, it is what the film tries to communicate to the viewer that is important.

P.S. The film won the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin Film Festival and a special mention for a debut film at the festival. At Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival, the film won the Golden Horse for the Best Feature film, Best Screenplay Award, and the Audience award. The film is one of the top 20 films of 2018 for the author.

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