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Berlinale Bloggers 2018
Life as Wastelands - “An Elephant Sitting Still”

„An Elephant Sitting Still“ | Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu
„An Elephant Sitting Still“ | Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu | © Hu Bo

“An Elephant Sitting Still” is the debut movie directed by Hu Bo (also known by his pen name Hu Qian), a young writer and director who ended his life with a rope in the stairwell of his apartment on 12 October 2017 at the age of 29.

By Yun-hua Chen

Hu Bo begins his film with a man’s voice-over narrating a story of an elephant who just sits in his zoo enclosure without ever getting up and ends it four hours later with the sound of an elephant trumpeting off-screen. Instead of seeing any elephant in the film, we come face to face with snippets of people fighting their day-to-day petty battles and playing the game of money and power like in a hamster wheel.

Probably living in a medium-sized city in the north of China, they are initially unrelated, but their paths are gradually interwoven into a tableau of a bleak society. High school kids from loveless families are bullied at school. The school bully has a gangster brother, who has an affair with his best friend’s wife. Their teacher pays three times the usual price to buy a small apartment in a good school district for his daughter, but forces his father to move into an old people’s home. On the street they all encounter a rude woman anxiously looking for a white dog which has gone astray.

Throughout the film there’s no lack of anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment, abusive language, threats, curses, mockery and screaming. The characters are either being scammed or afraid of it, so they swindle others first. With all these intense emotions, theatricality and drama, it would be on the borderline of becoming a cheesy telenovela, were it not for the film’s sensitivity, richness in detail, poetic ambiance and fluidity of imagery. The grey tone and visual style remind me of the Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye, whose Blind Massage participated in the Berlinale Competition in 2014.

The feelings of loneliness extend all the way into the soundtrack with its sentimental guitar solo. Andy yet, the film struggles to match Hu Bo’s homonymous novella An Elephant Sitting Still, which was published before the movie and sparkles with language full of free association, beautiful surreal elements and room for imagination, which were also the hallmarks of his other literary works such as Fissures (大裂) and Bullfrog (牛蛙). Sadly, the film loses some of the story’s original magic through its attempts at realism and over-reliance on rather bulky and stiff dialogues.

Death is ubiquitous in the film, which is noir without being a film noir. In Hu Bo’s film world, people die of old age and loneliness, jump from balconies, fall down stairs, or get shot by a gun; we even witness the passing of a dogs, bitten to death by other dogs. In a deliberately grotesque way, death is treated like something as banal as those endless rainy and chilly days in the film which can be easily shrugged off. The witnesses of death walk away in a matter-of-fact and light-hearted manner; some are too preoccupied with taking revenge or running away from avengers, whereas others simply want to post videos or continue gossiping on WeChat.

This feeling of mundaneness towards death is quite striking, but the film is by no means nihilistic. At its very end, a small team of disillusioned characters take the bus to Shenyang in their attempt to reach the Manjur zoo and see the elephant that sits still. When the bus stops for a short break, the camera captures them playing jianzi (Chinese shuttlecock) in front of the bus and being bathed in the headlight in a long shot and a relatively long take.

That is when we hear the trumpeting of the elephant, emerging from somewhere deep in the darkness. The myth of an elephant mysteriously sitting still is their hope for escape and their aspiration for a different place. The trumpeting cuts through the night in the same way that tender verdure sprouts in the “wastelands”, the term that Hu likes to use to describe life, both in the film through the words of a school kid and in his novel Fissures:

“I've been pondering why I was there and looking for ways in the wastelands where I can go, and I am convinced that everything is more than just disappointment with the present.”