The short life of Chinese novelist-turned-filmmaker Hu Bo recalls that of the late Marcin Wrona, except it is even more tragic. Both killed themselves before receiving the international accolades bestowed on their final films. In the case of Hu, it was also his first (finished under the supervision of his parents and a sponsoring arts group), but it is quite a statement—running just a whisker under four hours. An auspicious and heartbreaking debut, Hu’s An Elephant Sitting Still screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, giving ironic meaning to the festival’s very name.
Arguably, Elephant could be considered a Chinese descendant of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for the way it portrays personal corruption as a symptom of societal corruption. It is also long, but it never feels excessive. We follow four profoundly unhappy residents of a depressed northern industrial city in a vaguely Altman-esque way, until their paths definitively and organically converge during the third act.
Each is miserable in his own way. Thuggish Yang Cheng is wracked with guilt after watching the best friend he cuckolded hurl himself to his death. Tightly wound high schooler Wei Bu also wrestles with guilt after pushing the school’s internet troll down a flight of stairs and into a vegetative state. Huang Ling was one of the victims he shamed, for carrying on an affair with the school’s married vice-principal. In contrast, elderly Wang Jin hasn’t injured anyone, but he has little meaningful human contact, aside from occasional visits from the son eager to consign him to a retirement home.
All four principles become fascinated with the urban legend of an elephant in the distant Manzhouli zoo, who has gone on strike, in the John Galt tradition, refusing to eat or move, as a perverse way of asserting its independent agency. It is a strange bit of apocrypha to obsess over, but it is certainly in keeping with the multiple layers of tragedy hanging over the film.
This is a sprawling but strangely hardscrabble epic that has a very digital look. Nevertheless, Hu and cinematographer Fan Chao use the whole screen, capturing some strikingly scarred urban vistas and playing games with depth of focus for effect. Above and beyond all else, Hu and his cast create four unsparingly messy but deeply haunted portraits of four very damaged people. They are almost like four distinctively dysfunctional parts of a dysfunctional whole (sort of like Jonathan Carroll’s novella Black Cocktail, but not as bleak). Indeed, deep down, there is a scintilla of hope that human connections can still be possible and meaningful—maybe.
Peng Yuchang and Wang Yuwen have some TV credits on their resume, but they each have an unaffected naturalism that makes them look and sound like they were plucked out of provincial high school to plays analogs of their own lives. At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, we would suggest Zhang Yu shows the intensity and unpredictability of vintage De Niro in the hoodlum role. Yet, Liu Congxi really anchors the film and keeps it honest as the dignified Wang Jin. He also forges some aptly paternal chemistry with the little girl playing his granddaughter, whose innocence is in fact quite important to the film.