An Elephant Sitting Still
What happens when a film manages to convey truths without at all playing fair to dramatic plausibility? Within one day in An Elephant Sitting Still two people will have taken their own lives, another will have died after a mild altercation leaves him unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, and a fourth will beat a couple to almost certain death with a baseball bat. Usually, the way to offer so much happening within the course of one day would be to separate the stories out so that they aren't narratively interlinked, or create a very strong causal link which means that after one event has taken place the others inevitably follow. But in Hu Bo's film all the characters know each other and not all the events are causally connected, yet perhaps that is where the irony of this four-hour long film finally resides: in the idea that there are causes and effects that aren't easily discernible. From one point of view what we have is a piece of messy dramaturgy, but on the other, we have a film that plays up the unremitting bleakness of locale so that all things are brought to a head in a work that suggests a greater metaphysic than narrative causality.
In one scene, the local gangster Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) tells his upwardly mobile ex-girlfriend that she is responsible for one of the suicides. Earlier that morning he'd slept with his friend's wife; the friend came into the apartment, saw him half-hiding there, and threw himself off the balcony. Yang Cheng blames her for the incident. If she hadn't rejected him he wouldn't have slept with his friend's wife, he says, in a logic that can only usually work within the realm of denial, when someone won't take responsibility for their deeds. It could be the key scene, however, in a film that wants to find a deeper logic within hellish selfishness than narrative might usually allow, and Hu Bo manages to join Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing in suggesting that the new China is drawing on some very old, almost primitive behaviour. In such an atmosphere of everybody trying to get by or get on, human decency is relegated to a supporting role that can do no more than give you a bit part in life. Nobody seems to sense this more than the most senior figure in the film, Jin (Liu Congxi), who nevertheless possesses some of the same dignity of the much younger Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), the schoolboy responsible for the accident already alluded to, only pushing the other kid (Yang Chen's brother) down the stairs because the kid was harassing Wei Bu's best friend. Yet even Yang Cheng has a dignity of sorts. He allows Wei Bu to go free when he could have beaten him up, and does so partly because he knows his younger brother was even bigger trash than he happens himself to be. Partly what makes An Elephant Sitting Still an odd film is that it presents about as bleak an environment as one can imagine, but also indicates a sense of honour that the environment will not respect. Is this partly why the director adopts a position between complex feeling and implausible drama?
To explain further we can return to the events of the day. In the morning, Yang Cheng witnesses his friend's suicide. Later on, Wei Bu will push Yang Cheng's bullying brother down the stairs, and later still, the schoolgirl who has been having an affair with her teacher, with their affair now caught on a mobile phone, will have beaten to probable death the teacher and his wife when they harass her at her home. By the end of the day, Wei Bu's friend, who had stolen the bully's mobile aware that he had recorded the affair on it, puts a bullet through his own head. That is a lot of death, and all the more so because, as we have noted, events don't causally follow one from another. If for example someone took revenge on Yang Cheng for the first suicide, got the wrong man and killed his henchman, then Yang Cheng took revenge for the henchman's death, only to then kill himself as he saw the devastation his actions had wrought, we would have had four deaths all strongly motivated in a causal chain. It might make for a bad film, but not an improbable one. Hu Bo has made a good one which is not plausible, playing havoc with script guru logic. In our example above the film would have been consistent with Robert McKee's belief that "a story must build to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another." (Story) There are probably very few examples of stories where we cannot imagine another ending, but from Oedipus Rex to Medea we can see an internal logic that leaves the outcome appear inevitable. No such logic is evident in An Elephant Sitting Still. Yet the film feels inevitable nevertheless; which is partly why we have invoked the notion of a metaphysic.
What we mean by this is the film doesn't rely simply on either logical or realist coordinates but seeks instead to persuade the viewer that the world it presents is despairing and must dramatize that despair. If a film insists on causal reasoning that despair can seem inevitable but also narrow. It is a despair happening to the protagonists but needn't be a reflection of the world. This is why we have the term hamarta - the fatal flaw that leads characters in tragedy to their downfall. The environment is secondary to character, and a character's flaw results in a series of events leading to a tragic outcome. Such tragedies may finally have a metaphysical dimension, and one reason why they have survived through the centuries, but they also have a plot logic that makes them the basis for good storytelling. Hu Bo is more interested in the environment than in character: he films in a bleak, industrial China where the People's Revolution has given way to personal selfishness. This is reflected brilliantly in a precise yet unusual mise-en-scene well encapsulated by Alex Barrett when he says "Hu takes the unusual step of staging scenes in depth while keeping the camera's focus confined to the characters themselves, meaning that action often happens out of focus (or, on many occasions, just out of frame)." (Directorsnotes.com)
This isn't the superfluous background that we often expect from shallow focus films that insist the background is of no importance; it is all the more important in leaving us unclear as to what exactly is going on beyond the focus - quite distinct from what is beyond the frame. The latter can be a very good way of indicating a world beyond one's own concerns that are nevertheless not irrelevant to them. If Andre Bazin could see deep focus as so important in comprehending the world beyond the immediacy of the foregrounded story, the off-screen space can equally indicate a sense of world that isn't simply identificatory. When Andre Bazin insists "neo-realism gives back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality" ('The Evolution of the Language of Film'), he also says "it looks on reality as a whole, not incomprehensible, certainly, but inseparably one." ('In Defense of Rossellini'). The use of offscreen space through sounds that invoke what we don't see, without necessarily then drawing our eye by panning over to show us what is out of shot, adds to this inseparability. Yet taking into account Barrett's comment, Hu Bo is doing something very interesting with offscreen space because it is onscreen but out of focus. It gives to the film a foggy sense of partiality on the characters' part but a constant sense of events just beyond their purview. It might even be an aesthetic correlative for the denial we suggest some of the characters practice. They don't see the wider world and neither does Hu Bo's camera. But they can't quite ignore it either, as though the outside world is constantly impinging on their need for interior freedom.
Many a filmmaker would understandably believe that the best way to film the oppression of the environment would be to show that environment in depth: to film the socio-industrialised landscape in which the characters uncomfortably fit. This is vital to a neo-realist compassion, but Hu Bo is more interested in a post-realist tension that concentrates on the aggressive need to get by rather than the desperate failure to do so. This is partly what constitutes the breadth of a post-realist aesthetic that incorporates filmmakers as disparate as the Dardenne brothers and Bela Tarr, a characterisational and social focus that leads not first and foremost to fellow feeling but individuated despair. Whether it is Rosetta shopping her waffle selling colleague in the Dardenne brothers film of that name, or the central character screwing others over in Damnation, the emphasis is on a poverty of feeling that indicates the environment bites hard into the characters' sensibilities. This would seem to be the impoverishment Hu Bo seeks and there is little need for depth of focus to find it. Depth of non-feeling will do the job as the director concentrates on characters for whom that depth is not an expressible thought but a frustrated or delivered action. Even Yang Cheng's remark to his ex about sleeping with his friend's girlfriend isn't an expression but an example of emotional exasperation. He cannot face his own culpability and instead dilutes it, finding others to whom he can blame. And yet we might believe he is half-right, that the nature of the milieu means that nobody is quite responsible for their actions. The best one can hope to do is to escape the place or confront less one's bad faith than the good faith of recognizing hopelessness. This is what Yang Cheng does near the end of the film when he allows Wei Bu to escape instead of taking revenge for his brother's death. He knows that his brother was a bully, knows that, nevertheless, his parents will insist that Wei Bu must be punished. But Yang Cheng says that someone else can dole out that punishment;
Yang Cheng is ethically lucid enough to see that given the choice between his bother and Wei Bu, the latter has acted well and killed someone; his brother has acted badly and is now accidentally dead. We might look at the scene with the ex and the scene where he lets Wei Bu go as contrary to each other. In the first he won't take responsibility for the friend's death, in the second he takes responsibility for letting Wei Bu go free: his henchmen would have happily continued the violence they've already started. But Hu Bo suggests that in both instances there is a bigger world that makes a deed done irrelevant in the wider scheme of things because power only resides in the narrower scheme of things.
This brings together our two main points: the coincidence of events and the shallowness of the film's focus. One of the problems concerning causally strong stories is that they also indicate a self-governing universe: that the individual has the agency to control their destiny in causal terms. If someone lacks that agency, often the best way to indicate this is by a deep focus approach that suggests a limitation through a milieu undermining one's own attempt at freedom. Whether it happens to be Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves or Walter Salles' Central Station, there is not necessarily a broader metaphysic limiting the characters' predicament more than the milieu itself, thus vitally why it happens to be so clearly presented. In Hu Bo's film the director manages to be consistent with Tarr without copying a master, no matter if Tarr advised Hu Bo in the film's later stages according to Barrett. Tarr's camera usually circles round characters in lucid deep focus, and even in the tracking shots near the beginning of Werckmeister Harmonies, and during a wind-whipped trip a couple of characters make to a police station in Satantango, we see the wider environs. This is also why meteorology is important to Tarr's films, especially wind and rain. The characters are dwarfed by greater environmental forces. In Hu Bo's film, the greater forces still seem within the characters, worn down by the outside world even if they are not quite in it. When we think of the scene with the young student, Huang Ling (Wang Yu Wen) who sleeps with her teacher, we notice she initially hides in her bedroom, while the teacher and his wife are at her mum's front door. They get into the flat and want to get into Huang Ling's bedroom, but she leaves through the bedroom window, picks up a baseball bat along the way, and returns through the front door, hammering the couple several times with this solid object. The scene gives us little sense of the filmic space beyond a yard or two of Huang Ling, all the better to leave us inside her anxiety and rage: the couple beaten are just figures beyond the screen space who become part of it because of the student's entrance into it.
The couple's death will be linked to Yung Cheng's brother's demise but not necessarily causally. Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter refers to sufficiently convincing coincidences. When Wei Bu defends his friend against the bully it is because he believes his friend is innocent: that he hasn't stolen his phone. But as it so happens he has stolen the phone to try and prevent the bully from putting details of his fellow student's affair with the teacher online. However, he stole it too late: the images had already been uploaded. This isn't quite coincidence but it is not causality either, which is why we have earlier talked about the film's irony. Dramaturgical irony often takes place when a character determines a set of events that do not go according to plan, from Oedipus's determination to do everything he must to avoid the fate offered by the Sphinx, to the short tale Cocteau retells about a person determined to avoid death who is coming to take him that evening and who rides to another town only to see walking down the street Death, who, with a look of surprise, takes his life a little sooner than intended. The irony rests in the determination to escape a fate that is preordained. This doesn't make it causal, nor does it make it coincidental. Equally, in Elephant Still Standing, Hu Bo would seem to be willing to accept what might appear like weak dramaturgy because he seeks a strong metaphysic, one where we nevertheless might believe they can escape by leaving town. In the last section of the film, Wei Bu, Huang Ling, the grandfather and his granddaughter will all leave, and the film perhaps indicates that the town is a cruel force-field where behaviour is far from free, where life will be predetermined. But he also proposes a geographical fatalism that may be escapable. Unlike the figure trying to evade death in Cocteau's story, Le grand ecart, only to find death awaits, in An Elephant Sitting Still, we might hope that topographical malevolence can be countered by human agency once people remove themselves from the pull of its boundaries. This may be an inversion of the famous claim that you can take the man out of the street but you cannot take the street out of the man. In this countering, which we offer tentatively, the film may be offering for all its general bleakness an optimism missing from Hu Bo's own youthful existence and demise. A novelist whose first film this is, Hu Bo took his own life at the age of 29.
© Tony McKibbin