Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Top Ten List #1 An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo)

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (Da xiang xi di er zuo)              A                    
China  (230 mi)  2018 d:  Hu Bo

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.
―Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) from Hu Bo’s novel Huge Crack (Fissures), 2017

Arguably the most blistering social critique of alienated youth ever committed to celluloid, a grim and heartbreaking story of troubled adolescents with no adult role models, as they are all hypocrites, part of the moral rot of an aging system of rampant political corruption that has no interest whatsoever in solving social problems, preferring instead to find ways to keep important figures from being blamed in the day-to-day turmoil that exists, allowing them to maintain prestigious positions for keeping their mouths shut and never ratting anybody out.  This is how those at the top remain protected, as there is a code of silence at local bureaucratic levels if those individuals expect to keep their jobs.  Within this framework, children are raised with no expectations, none whatsoever, knowing their hopeless lives are “fucked,” having no place to turn to set things straight, as every available avenue is entrenched in the same one-party totalitarian system where you do as you’re told, not in any way or shape dream of what someone might aspire to, as that’s completely off limits, something happening only in the West, as China couldn’t be more set in their ways, with an underlying criminal element actually in charge, ruling by force, all but guaranteeing uniform conformity, especially in rural areas where there is little economic opportunity to begin with.  What makes this film so potent is the complete lack of artifice, very atypical in that there’s not a hint of melodrama, jam-packed with introspective detail, novelesque in tone, brilliantly edited by this first-time director, enclosed in the claustrophobic confines of an industrial town that resembles a prison environment, like being stuck in an inescapable labyrinth, given an epic structure, unfolding in just under four hours, yet the entire film takes place in the course of a single day.   In a word, what describes this film the most is authentic, given a rarely viewed cesspool of social dysfunction, yet the immersion into a black hole of discontent is near complete.  Shot in washed out colors by cinematographer Fan Chao, the use of hand-held cameras adds a degree of immediacy, as does the brilliant interlude music by Hua Lun, providing sharp tonal contrasts between scenes, accentuating an existential crisis in full throttle mode.  While there are stand-out moments, the one that comes to mind is when a lead character wanders out to the edge of town and yells profanities at the top of his voice, “Fuck you!!” at what a dead-end, shithole place this is, framed by a moving train on the left, and a highway running past a giant industrial factory on the right, all the ways in and out of this hellish purgatory on earth.  Relentlessly bleak, it’s as defiant a take as can be found on the toxic reverberations of the modern world. 

Difficult to digest, there is no manufactured drama here, as it’s all excrutiatingly real, extremely well-written and performed, leaving a long-lasting impression that is unmistakably honest and ferociously truthful, conveying an unfiltered artistic vision rarely seen anywhere else.  A disciple of Béla Tarr’s long take without the wry sardonic humor, yet the dire effects of the fall of Communism in SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994), a morose tale of woe that comes to resemble an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario and the epic use of extended time thematically relates to this material as well, each poetically revealing a suffocating desperation, a last gasp.  Easily the most heartbreaking aspects of the film are the circumstances regarding its distribution, with early promoter and producer Wang Xiaoshuai and his wife Liu Ye preferring that the director trim the four-hour length into something more commercially acceptable like a two-hour version.  After making repeated cuts and several painful attempts to comply the filmmaker took his own life at the age of 29, hanging himself with a rope in the stairwell of his apartment, having written two novels under the pen name Hu Qian (one more published posthumously), also three shorts, and one lone feature film.  After Hu’s death, the producers relinquished the rights to the film to the director’s parents (as stated in the credits) who insisted upon maintaining the director’s original vision of the film, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival in its full four-hour length, winning a FIPRESCI award and an award for the best first feature, while also winning the best feature film and best adapted screenplay awards at the Golden Horse Film Festival in 2018.  With Wang Xiaoshuai’s production company removed from the credits, no one has said it clearer than Brian Raven Ehrenpreis from The Quietus, None More Bleak: Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still - The Quietus, “In the cruelest of ironies, it was only Hu’s death that allowed An Elephant Sitting Still to survive.”  Equally painful to consider, the exhaustive detail of the hell and anguish he lived through exists only because he lived the way he did, persevering through it all, finding it all so meaningless, yet his tender compassion for the hapless characters he created and his uncompromising search for meaning and truth through a Kafkaesque world that made little sense is immeasurable. 

Seemingly born out of Jia Zhang-ke’s UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), an unflinching look at disillusioned youth, this film is etched with Dostoyevskian psychological depth and personal autobiographic detail, with some describing the film as his “suicide note” left behind, adding an underlying poignancy to the viewing experience, yet the blunt force of the original aesthetic is what prevails, as this is a fully accomplished work that serves as a wake-up call to all who enter into its extraordinary complexity and artistic reach, achieving a rare intimacy with the viewing audience.  Adapting a story from his acclaimed novel, Huge Crack (Fissures), bookended by a mythical tale of an elephant that sits passively, impervious to others, even those poking at it, residing at a zoo in the northern town of Manzhouli near the Mongolian border, perhaps a metaphoric image of survival, offering the briefest glimpse of hope, yet the tale has an omniscient quality about it, like the oversized whale in Béla Tarr’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000), suggesting the power of irrational forces that may intrude into the bleak reality of our existence.  Following the lives of a group of high school students, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is berated by his father from the moment he awakes, called a good-for-nothing, accused of theft, which he calmly denies, which only inflames the anger of his father, painting a miserable depiction of parenthood.  In another corner of town friendship is betrayed, as local thug Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) looks on while his best friend, whose wife he just slept with, leaps out the window to his death.  This incident supercharges the opening with what feels like a pent-up nihilistic rage (though the film resists that notion), followed by a pathetic expression of cold-hearted ingratitude when a daughter and son-in-law plead with her aging father, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), to move into a nursing home, allowing them more space, all but kicking him out of the house, which, he reminds them both, is his apartment, while their precocious young daughter (Kong Yixin) actually prefers his company.  At the high school, we see a group of bullying tormentors led by Yu Shuai (Zhang Xiaolong) harass weaker students, forcing them into demeaning servitude, like publically performing humiliating menial duties out in the open for all the other students to laugh and jeer, accusing Li Kai (Ling Zhenghui) of stealing his cell phone.  Wei Bu comes to his friend’s defense, claiming he’s not a thief, and actually stands up to him, pushing him away at one point and the bully falls down the stairs, leaving him gravely injured (and eventually dies), though no police are called, preferring to handle the matter discreetly (meaning no school administrators are blamed). 

The assistant dean (Xiang Rongdong) interviews Wei Bu, reminding him of the dead-end future that’s in store for him, informing him the school’s about to shut down and merge with a much better school, where most kids from this low performing high school will end up becoming street food vendors, while he’ll get a larger and more comfortable office at the new school.  Even though it was an accident, the incident is described as a fight, with Wei Bu beating up Yu Shuai, whose older brother Yu Cheng will come looking for revenge, perhaps aiming to kill him.  From the stream of insults that were hurled by his nemesis, Wei Bu learns for the first time that his morally superior father was actually fired from his job due to his involvement with bribery scandals.  Deciding he can’t live at home anymore, Wei Bu goes on the run, first asking a female classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) if she’ll run away with him, but she sees no future in that, especially considering his desperate situation.  Later in the film, however, a video goes viral revealing a hushed-up affair between Huang Ling and the married vice dean, making them both the centerpiece of yet another lurid scandal with a destructive capacity to seriously damage their futures.  Ling’s confessional scene to her mother is a picture of the grotesque, as her alcoholic mother really couldn’t care less, thinking only of herself and her own troubles.  But when the vice dean and his wife come knocking on her door, that’s a whole different matter entirely, erupting into a screaming fiasco, each side accusing the other, filmed as one of the more memorable scenes in the film, with Ling slipping out the back door, but so incensed at what she hears, she grabs a baseball bat lying on the ground and returns inside their apartment and bashes both of the intruders, handling it the way the mafia might in a surprise assault, leaving her mother’s mouth agape as she confidently struts back out the door again, fully committed to never returning to that home again.  In what may be the metaphor for the film, a dog-eat-dog world, Wang Jin is out walking his dog when a bigger dog on the loose comes flying out of an alleyway in full attack mode, viciously killing his poor animal on the spot, leaving him in a puddle of blood.  The owners of the attack animal have placed photos of their missing dog all over town, but when Wang Jin visits them to report what happened, they fly off in a rage about how he’s trying to blackmail them for money, vowing to kill the man if they ever see him again.  These vile threats and unending contemptible behavior come to define the world we’re living in, as the empowered are overly protective of their favored status, which they cling to by constantly threatening those weaker and more vulnerable than they are, creating a layer of outcasts who simply don’t belong, commanding no respect whatsoever.  What are they supposed to do?  None of the empowered take responsibility for their repulsive and reprehensible acts, even if their divisiveness creates worlds of divide between the rich and the poor, where the poor and victimized will always be blamed. 

Much like the realist films of Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka made during the martial law clampdown of the Marcos era, Hu Bo fuses his own brutally demanding realist, cinéma vérité style with suggestions that continual unabated mistreatment leads to dire consequences with violent outbursts, leaving gaping fissures or cracks that destabilize the fundamental health of any society.  Arrests, murders, and suicide rip families apart and leave their mark, especially when the offending party escapes culpability, leaving them free to wreak even more havoc on the next generation, leaving a battered and bullied nation literally traumatized from the heaping levels of abuse.  Characters throughout this film spew references to this list of casualties and feeling of utter abandonment, as if they’ve been banished to an island of lost souls, tossed out and rejected, literally disassociating themselves from the rest of the world.  One of the more ominous sequences, beautifully presented, is Wang Jin’s spontaneous visit to the nursing home, where it’s difficult to see any sense of organization or structure, as people left adrift act as if they’ve been abandoned, as he goes room by room, with long tracking shots following at a glacier pace, where the loneliness and isolation are painfully evident, leaving an open scar of mammoth proportions.  Why would anyone wish to subject themselves to this dismal and depressing place, where old people are left to die, miserable and alone.  So much is exposed in this film, where all age groups are covered, becoming a cry of anguish from the wilderness, with viewers feeling the volcanic onslaught of a corrosive bitterness that simply annihilates anyone in its path.  There is precious little love to be found anywhere in this film, existing in small moments, never the focal point of a shot, yet it exists on the periphery, resembling the way the film is shot, with someone in focus near the front of the screen, while lingering in the background are blurry shadows that either remain that way or walk closer to the camera, their figures coming into focus as recognizable characters.  There’s a dizzyingly dreary look to this town, faded with decay, with a prevalent mood suggesting it’s disappearing into nothingness.  Much of the dialogue reflects this overriding sense of despair, with one student (the humiliated boy forced to capitulate to the bully earlier) spontaneously erupting with an unprovoked remark, “The world is a wasteland.”  While it’s an ordeal to sit through, an emotional blitzkrieg, what’s perhaps most challenging is the idea that people find none of this out of the ordinary, as several characters suggest this is the normal order of things, that you have to learn to put up with it, which apparently is what separates adults from kids, as they’ve figured out how to remain impassive to the surrounding cruelty.  We hear the cynical voice of the vice dean describe how it is to Ling, “I want you to know that daily routines have been the same across the ages…Life just won't get better.  It’s all about agony.  That agony has begun since you were born.  You think that a new place will change your fate?  It’s bullshit.  New place, new sufferings.  You understand?  No one truly knows about existence.”  These thoughts echo to anyone fixated on the thought that life is better off somewhere else, like an elusive dream continually fading out of view.  Nonetheless, with nowhere else to go, several of them converge on the idea of escaping to Manzhouli, the home of the mythical elephant that may or may not exist, yet that sliver of hope may be all they have. 

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