Da xiang xi di er zuo – An Elephant Sitting Still

China, 2018

Directed by Hu Bo

With Yuchang Peng (Wei Bu), Yu Zhang (Yu Cheng), Uvin Wang (Huang Ling), Zhenghui Ling (Li Kai), Congxi Li (Wang Jin)

He had just jerked his left arm away, but that was enough to shove the boy and make him lose his balance. The victim fall down the staircase, getting knocked out and badly injured in the backbone. Wei Bu was quarreling with his high school’s bully because the aggressive teenager claimed that Wei Bu’s best pal, Li Kai, filched his mobile phone, which Li Kai denied. Wei Bu ran away; he was shocked by the outcome of the confrontation and deeply aware the bully’s family would seek redress, even revenge, and send the victim’s brother, a well-known, ruthless thug, Yu Cheng, to get him.

As he reckons what to do next, Wei Bu keeps his distance from his helpless working mother and his jobless uncle who shelters him but belittles him, finds out his grandmother is dead, and fails to convince the girl he likes so much, fellow student Huang Ling, to follow him. He wanders through the streets, discovering other unpalatable facts: Huang Ling has an affair with the high school’s deputy principal while Li Kai proves to be unreliable and mendacious (so, after all, he did steal the phone).

Caught in gloom and doom: Yuchang Peng

As he feared, Wei Bu is chased by Yu Cheng, although without zeal and passion. The petty criminal is still reeling from the tragedy he took part earlier in the day (and which starts the film): the suicide of his best friend who was dismayed to find his girlfriend had slept with Yu Cheng in the apartment the couple owns. Yu Cheng is also bitterly disappointed by the blunt refusal of the young woman he loves to date him. And the mess with his brother just reminds him how much he despises his own family.

These youngsters cross the path of Wang Jin, a pensioner who lives with his dog, a daughter, her husband and their daughter. The adults make clear they want to move elsewhere to improve their living standards and thus need the money the sale of Wang Jin’s apartment could yield; there is no reason why the old man could not live in the nearby old people’s home. Granted, he wants to stay with his pet, but when the gentle dog is massacred by another pet and the old man gets embroiled in Wei Bu’s troubles, surely he can reconsider?

The polyphonic tale takes place in an unidentified place purporting to represent the quintessential big industrial town upset by a changing Chinese economy. It is a sprawling place where modern and seemingly clean housing towers and well-stocked malls mix with poorer accommodations and dilapidated institutions, from the high school to the hospital. Wintertime gives the film a thoroughly cold and whitish lighting that emphasizes the depressing character of the town and the narrative.

This is a world that has discarded the principles of Kong Fu Zi and Mao Zedong long ago, wallowing now in a modern slough of despond. The deep respect that the youngest must show to their elders and the paramount solidarity that should bond each with anyone have been erased. Instead, people endlessly argue, fight, and utterly fail to find agreement and to pursue happiness.

Young people learn to regard violence as a natural way to act and interact with others (the girl weeping after the brawl between Wei Bu and the bully, who has just been picked up by an ambulance, is chastised by Huang Ling – why do she care so much?). That Li Kai can wield his dad’s gun (that he stole, of course), does not surprise anyone – Yu Cheng just wonders if he can use it properly (unfortunately, he would). The same Yu Cheng is perfectly aware his way of life is wrong (he does not hesitate to belittle his own persona) but still cashes the dough it yields to him.

Adults are relentlessly cast as failures, one way or another, at least when they are around (the film does not feature a great number of them, rather focusing on people under 30). Their working life is often a mess, even a misery. Dissatisfied and frustrated, they enter the blame game without qualms or qualification (Wang Jin is castigated as a selfish old man and Huang Ling as an ungrateful daughter and a slut) or ignore basic moral rules (dating one of his students is just fine with the deputy principal). When things go wrong, these adults prove to be remarkably immoral and selfish. As for the old people, they are doomed to end their lives in isolated places where no help would come (Wei Bu’s grandma dies without anyone in the vicinity realizing it while the visit paid by Wang Jin to that much-vaunted old people’s home is a poignant and dismal depiction of alienation, loneliness, and cruelty that these old people are doomed to face, a walk through hellish corridors hard to forget).

This drama is a painstaking but lucid tour of a society going to waste – waste is a pervasive element of the characters’ life: Wei Bu’s uncle complains of the garbage odor wafting into their apartment in his first appearance; Wang Jin dumps the corpse of his dog, and a part of his life, in a pit full of garbage; Wei Bu howls his rage about his life in a landfill; another trope, easily related to waste, pervading the narrative is death. The most disturbing component of this long portrayal (the running time is 230 minutes) is how deeply resigned people seem; indeed, a dispirited discourse on the unavoidable character of failure is told twice (by Huang Ling’s mother and Wang Jin). To think the grass is greener elsewhere is foolish; what is natural is to accept the low life fate assigned to oneself.

The odd, funny, tale narrated by Yu Cheng’s late friend, at first a surprising talking point between Yu Cheng and his pal’s girlfriend, increasingly stands as the remote, eccentric, possibility of a different reality shaped by fantasy and novelty. It gives the film its title: in a nearby town, a circus shelters an elephant that sits still all day, doing nothing and seemingly happy. Going to this town becomes the purpose of Wei Bu, who manages to enroll Huang Ling and Wang Jin (accompanied by his cheerful granddaughter). The long road travel through the night brings the movie to its end; the fantastic animal is not shot, but in a remarkable departure from the rest of the narration, the camera captures in a long shot the lead characters and other passengers after their bus stopped for a rest as they start playing jianzi (a Chinese shuttlecock game). This time it does not linger on sullen faces and hostile gestures taken in medium shots or close-ups; though faces are too far away, there is the feeling that interactions based on basic civility and kindness remain a distinct, still available, possibility.

The pace of the narration readily puts “Da xiang xi di er zuo – An Elephant Sitting Still” in the slow cinema category. It obviously purports to be tuned to the rising awareness by the characters events are cutting the few social bonds or sentiments attaching them to the present-day Chinese urban modernity as well as the complexity of their relations with one another and with truth. It also acutely emphasizes the dullness of life in this context. The film relentlessly focuses on the characters’ emotional and intellectual difficulties in grappling with their dreary world, shooting blank faces or, in the contrary, standing behind their backs as they wander in the streets, turned befuddled by the violence around them.

The hard work and sincerity behind the film are impressive, although the tedious treatment of these sad lives made through Hu Bo’s shooting and editing choices can be viewed sometimes as laboring the point. The quest for the amazing elephant looks like a weak and peremptory counterpoint trying to suggest a positive alternative. Yet it appeals to deeply noble attitudes: the need for dream and the refusal to let resignation prevail. However, the director did not seem fully convinced by his own symbolism: Hu Bo, who was also a novelist, committed suicide while what was his debut feature was in post-production (he was only 29), depriving Chinese cinema of a truly perceptive and gifted artist.

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