“It’s all about agony” a discredited adult figure intones midway into Hu Bo’s first (and sadly only) feature, An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Dàxiàng Xídì’érzuò). Latest in a long line of indie features to ask serious questions about the hypocrisies of the modern China, Elephant stops to wonder how one manages to live at all in world which has become so “disgusting” as to make life itself seem like a cosmic joke. In this “wasteland”, all that’s left of human connection appears to be a series of games of oneupmanship in which there must always be a loser and for which no one wants to take personal responsibility. Then again, they say there’s an elephant in a zoo in Manzhouli which has taken passive resistance to unnatural extremes but somehow survived all the world has thrown at it.
Four lives intertwine in the decaying industrial environment of a rundown town somewhere in Northern China. Petty gangster Yu Cheng’s (Zhang Yu) day gets off to a pretty bad start after he sleeps with his best friend’s wife only for him to return unexpectedly, spot Yu Cheng’s shoes in the hall, and then throw himself off the balcony in a fit of total despair. Meanwhile, teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) gets himself mixed up in his best friend’s altercation with school bully Yu Shuai (Yu Cheng’s little brother) over an (allegedly) stolen phone which ends in a scuffle and Yu Shuai tumbling down a set of stairs. Wei Bu decides to run and asks his female best friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to go with him, but she has troubles of her own in the form of a toxic relationship with her embittered mother and an ill-advised affair with the school’s married vice-principal. Lacking other options, Wei Bu turns to his genial next-door neighbour, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), hoping to borrow some money but Wang is preoccupied with his declining family situation as his son and daughter-in-law attempt to force him out of his apartment and into a nursing home so they can move into the catchment area for a better school for Wang’s granddaughter.
Our four see themselves as walking dead, but are in some respects the last four standing. They wonder and they muse, asking why it is life has to be this way but unable to simply ignore the nagging threads of connection and human decency that those around them seem to have successfully eradicated. The older generation, having been betrayed by China’s rapid rise to economic prosperity, are cruel and embittered. They treat their children with contempt, smirking grimly in the knowledge that they will likely share the same fate. Yet they have managed to weather the storm, coming to an accommodation with the fact that life is disappointing and surviving even if in a form that makes survival just about as unpalatable as it’s possible to be.
For this survival, they have helped themselves to entitlement. This is a game of (occasionally literal) dog eat dog in which all that matters is winning no matter at what cost in order to avoid feeling like a nobody. Petty schoolboy thug Yu Shuai, learning a lesson from his disaffected brother, attempts to rule by fear and intimidation but finds his empire threatened by Wei Bu’s principled attempt to stand up for his friend. Wei Bu is a “loser” and his accidental “win” is a shock to the system that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down but revolution was not in Wei Bu’s game plan and his resistance is short lived. Alone and friendless, he sees no alternative but flight.
Wei Bu’s friend, who turns out to have been unworthy of his loyalty, later achieves a rare moment of existential ecstasy in having frightened off two goons with a gun he pinched from his father. He is overawed to have inspired such fear and sure that most never feel anywhere near as alive as he feels at this moment. Wei Bu is unimpressed by his dark philosophy, but perhaps understands it as a grim encapsulation of the world in which he lives. Yu Cheng too tacitly accepts that his society values the strong, but it becomes apparent that his pretence of coldness is just that. He claims to hate everybody, and his brother most of all, but he walks back into a room on fire to save a man he doesn’t know and for all his attempts to abnegate the responsibility for his friend’s death is clearly affected both by his decision and his own role within it.
Responsibility is something nobody wants to take. Yu Cheng blames his friend’s death first on his own individual will, and then on his greedy wife for the unnecessary economic burden she placed on him, and finally on an unrequited love whose rejection he claims sent him into the arms of his best friend’s girl, but finally he cannot escape his own sense of guilt as embodied by the grieving mother his moral failings have produced. Huang Ling’s teacher expresses a similar life philosophy when she presses him as to why the school did not call the police over Yu Shuai’s accident. He tells her that if he’d called the police he’d be “involved” which not something that he wants to be. Unfortunately for him, his decision to pursue an “affair” with a vulnerable teenager is going to get him in “involved” in several sticky situations, most of which he blames Huang Ling for as the girl who has “ruined” him. Like the elephant of the title, Huang Ling’s lover sits and watches as the world spirals out of control, unwilling to stop it for fear of being dragged into its never-ending cycle of destruction and disappointment.
Intense individualism has fostered not only selfishness, but a refusal of accountability. Everything is always someone else’s fault just as someone else must always lose in each and very encounter in order to avoid the sensation of being a “loser” oneself. Alone among the older generation, Wang retains his youthful sense of human feeling, but eventually even his will is worn away and he considers giving in and entering the retirement home even after visiting it and realising it is little more than death’s waiting room. His advice to the young echoes that of Huang Ling’s lover, that there is no escape from sorrow and an attempt to evade it through starting again somewhere else will lead only to double failure. The best thing, he tells them, is to believe in a better place and then never go there so as not to have your illusions of a kinder world shattered. Yet there are flickers of possibility, Wei Bu wants to see the elephant anyway even if it changes nothing. Hu wants to ask us if it’s possible to go on living if you discover that there is nothing to live for and perhaps he found his own answer for that, but there is hope here, if faint and compromised, in the thought of distant elephants enduring all with stoic grace.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of New Wave Films.
International trailer (English subtitles)