An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China 2018)

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.

One comment

  1. John Hall

    I watch a lot of films that have a fairly bleak view of the world. The reissue of The Passenger that I saw at Home last week was one such. However it is difficult to put myself in the mindset of a director, still in his twenties, who chose to commit suicide before finding out what impact his inaugural film would have on the world. It does seem a little incurious of him. I will probably pass on this one.

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