1. Elephants Don’t Cry
All screenings of An Elephant Sitting Still were sold out at this year’s New Directors/New Films Festival. The woman in front of me said she hoped it would be good and worth the wait. The man behind me was humming along to something that sounded like jazz. I wondered if I’d have needed to wait in standby lines twice if Hu Bo, its young Chinese director, were still alive. Hu had killed himself in the final throes of editing his film. In a document titled “The Death of a Young Director,” discovered on Hu Bo’s computer shortly after his death, Hu complained that the producers had sought to undermine him during the shoot, accused him of being unprofessional, and demanded that the film’s run time be cut in half.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a four-hour long trial of individually engrossing seven-minute takes. The narrative is at once simple and convoluted: some nondescript city in China is suffering from an economic crisis. Schools are closing, the old are relegated to nursing homes, and no one is safe from financial blackmail or spontaneous acts of violence.
“There is a circus elephant in Manchuria,” the gang leader Yang Cheng—world-weary despite pop-star good looks—muses to his lover at the film’s beginning. “The damn thing just sits, perhaps it’s sick of getting poked, perhaps it just likes sitting there. Now, its stubbornness has attracted quite the crowd. Those who visit throw food at it, but the elephant no longer cares.”
For the next 230 minutes, we follow the all-in-a-day humiliations of a luckless quartet as they attempt to survive and escape their escalating predicaments by journeying toward the elephant on strike, a romanticized Golden Fleece. Day in the gray city dribbles into night on a secluded country road. (The film was shot in Jingxing County, the former coal capital of Hebei Province, known for severe winters, permanent fog, and gray skies.) Moments after Yang Cheng describes the elephant in the opening scene, his lover’s cuckolded husband—who is also his best friend—arrives at the apartment, discovers the betrayal, and jumps out of a window to his death. Meanwhile, Wang Jin, a sprightly retiree, is accused by his son and daughter-in-law of taking up too much space in the family’s cramped apartment. “But I bought this house!” he protests. His beloved dog is killed; he dumps the body in a canal and wanders around with a cue stick that gets him in trouble with local thugs. His neighbor, moody high-school misfit Wei Bu, stands up to a bully and pushes him down a flight of stairs. Wei Bu’s unemployed father steals from him and the boy is forced to go on the run from the bully’s avenging brother, who just happens to be our initial anti-hero, Yang Cheng. And there is also Huang Lin, Wei Bu’s love interest, who is involved with the vice-dean and has an alcoholic mother.
Described by Screen Daily as a Béla Tarr-meets-Jia Zhangke riff on Jason and the Argonauts, the film has garnered reviews that waltz from quiet admiration to well-meaning sympathy to assertions that it’s yet another apathetic and grimly oppressive representation of China. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Filmstage, and BFI, Hu’s direction is “sensitive,” “delicate,” “deeply felt,” and “transcendent” enough to “compensate for any narrative contrivances.” I wasn’t surprised to find Western media painting Hu Bo as martyr of a token non-democracy. An Elephant was described as “a four-hour portrait of a society of egoists” on the festival program at this year’s Berlinale, where it was awarded a special mention for the Best First Feature Award.
“Depression,” writes the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, “is a narcissistic malady…. [It] pulls the subject into itself.” At the heart of Hu Bo’s world lives egotism in the name of self-preservation, demonstrated by each character’s ability to inflict and endure various degrees of suffering: ill fortune, encounters with amoral lowlifes, unkind families, and bad education. Dialogue like “This world is really disgusting,” “Life is a wasteland,” and “People do not get better,” repeated with beleaguered enthusiasm, forms the chorus of Hu Bo’s fatalistic fugue.
At the end of the film, we hear the prolonged trumpet of an elephant. Three out of four protagonists make it to Manchuria. Fade to black. In the theater at the New Directors/New Films Festival, quiet applause rose as a dedication flashed onscreen, a photograph of Hu Bo smiling with unkempt shoulder-length hair. I exited the theater with muted dissatisfaction. The elephant had sounded like a looped recording from the archives of an online encyclopedia.
2. A Zone Named Dread
Hu Bo rode a white scooter with a broken rearview mirror. Growing up, his teachers either favored him for his smarts or hated him for his long hair, his rebellious and “lazy” nature. Nicknamed the “sleeping god,” Hu was always late for class even though he lived just two hundred meters away. In the second year of high school, he declared he would no longer speak in the local Jinan dialect, as Chinese was the official language for admission into the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. He was accepted on his third try, and at twenty-two, was the oldest student of his cohort. He did well enough in film projects to be offered lucrative directing gigs for Korean commercials, but rejected them on the basis of artistic integrity.
Hu Bo was most active on his Weibo microblogging account just before his death, during post-production. He published blurbs and reviews of his books Bullfrog and Big Crack, muted photos of urban landscapes without people, and disconsolate observations. In an entry dated July 16, 2017, he wrote: All these years, I had never thought about what cinema really was. It is humiliation, hopelessness, helplessness, a joke. In another post, he spoke of having been an avid gamer. He confessed to sleeping more than ten hours each day. An addiction to games and sleep turned into an addiction to alcohol. The more he drank, the more he felt he could not get out from the trap he had set for himself. There was only ever a wall, he wrote—a metaphorical, eternally blank wall.
But speaking at the FIRST Youth Film Festival in 2016, Hu Bo insisted An Elephant Sitting Still (then unmade, with the working title The Golden Fleece) was not about despair but love: “Love as the march and sacrifice of silence.” At the Berlin Film Festival, the producers said the film was about “hope,” and that all proceedings would go to Hu Bo’s parents. After a standing ovation, his mother addressed the audience in Berlin: “I am both happy and pained to be here today. There is anguish because my son had died for an elephant. Happy because the elephant is here with you.”
The death of the unknown director sparked a passing debate in China. Beijing’s China Youth Daily questioned the culture of “cruelty” necessary to every young director’s success, a view encouraged by the influential fifth-generation directors who survived the Cultural Revolution. “An Investigation into the Quality of Life of Young Chinese Directors,” a joint survey by three prominent Chinese film production companies, discovered that less than a third of respondents could provide for their families; another third were barely self-sufficient and the remaining forty percent fell within the national poverty rate of 8.6 percent.
Reviews of An Elephant Sitting Still from the Chinese mainland range from expressing praise (“a truly generous film!”; “a film of kindness for it refuses to omit anything”), to lamenting the film’s extreme portrayal of the downtrodden (“too pessimistic”; “they constantly torture themselves with some abstract problem only for the unease to reach breaking point”), to critiquing what they see as the specifically Chinese hypocrisy of celebrating art only after it is internationally acclaimed.
Days before his death, Hu Bo told a friend that he would like a hangman engraved on his tombstone. “Surely the words accompanying the hangman would be ‘the loneliest man in the world’!” the friend apparently joked. “There’s not much to life really,” lamented Hu Bo. “Besides my being a tool that only ever writes, and makes films. Creation demands impossible rubrics of pain.”
3. Suffer Unwell
I grew up in Singapore in the late ’90s, when Chinese dramas were still beloved and “I Can Endure Hardship” was the theme song for the wildly popular nation-building TV series Stepping Out. Tagging along to weekly karaoke sessions, I remember adults belting out its lyrics among other typically morose power ballads. The literal translation of the song title, the clumsy “I am able to eat bitterness (我吃得起苦, wō chī dé qĭ kú),” excuses a pay-it-forward attitude toward the neo-Confucian ideal of suffering—no pain, no gain. (苦 (bitterness) also forms the root of 苦力(kǔlì), or “coolie,” the pejorative loanword for an unskilled Asian laborer.) Singapore blossomed from a tiny tropical island to one of the richest countries in the world; singing the blues together cements collective tolerance for suffering as long as there are better days ahead (or money to be made).
Even more gratifying than “eating bitterness” is the borrowed Bahasa Melayu word tahan, meaning “to bear; to endure,” often uttered, tongue-in-cheek, when puffing another cigarette to get through the sweltering heat, or another fifty-five hour workweek.
In an environment where it’s humiliating for adults to acknowledge their pain or seek affirmative help, it’s as if any wisdom gleaned from growing up can only be that of suffering well. And as long as you persevere, you will have what everyone else wants. But what happens when one has fallen out of love with suffering?
The opposite of eating bitterness (我吃得起苦 , wō chī dé qĭ kú) is 受不了 (shòu bùliǎo). More than being able to “endure no more,” it denotes a surrender, a final declaration of “having given up.” In Hu Bo’s original short story of the same name, Yang Cheng, the reluctant gang leader, is the sole protagonist. Having caused the death of his best friend, Yang Cheng makes his way to the circus and breaks into the elephant’s cage. On seeing the animal’s broken leg, he is overwhelmed by the sudden desire to hug and cry with it. He approaches. The elephant stands up, knocks him over with its trunk, and steps on his chest. Yang Cheng hears the zookeepers swearing at him as they rush toward the enclosure.
Hopelessness at its core makes An Elephant Sitting Still regrettably one-note. I asked a visiting filmmaker friend: What if An Elephant is just an exercise in malaise, so skewed by the desire to impress with its relentless performance of depression that it can’t be anything else, really? A cry for help? Well, he replied, It’s just a pity it isn’t a very good film. Hu Bo, the talented rebel, the animal-lover and avid microblogger, the charming yet awkward artist with long hair and flip-flops, would have gone on to make better movies.
The critic Caoxi writes in his op-ed for Southern People Daily, “What Does a Sitting Elephant Have To Do With You?” that Hu Bo’s artistic intent was to question how we consider the lives of others. “If we seek to distance ourselves from the suffering of others, perhaps we do not deserve the fruition of their dreams.” Perhaps the measure of suffering should go beyond one’s ability or inability to endure, and should instead be centered, as Caoxi implies, on the role empathy plays. In case of suffering unwell, one must not neglect the importance of showing compassion not only toward others but also toward oneself, to allow the possibility for adjustments and recalibration. It is quite all right to move, after all, having sat so still.