An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Hu Bo, 2018)

An elephant sitting still poster“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)

Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Jia Zhangke, 2015)

mountains may depart poster verticleJia Zhangke has made something of a career out of charting his nation’s history through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the business of living when everything about them is changing. Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Shānhé gùrén) isn’t the first of his films to span a comparatively wide period of time, though it is the first to venture into the “future” if only by a decade or so. Through a story of dislocation and isolation both cultural and personal, Jia has traversed the melancholy odyssey of those who grow up to discover that all the wrong choices have already been made.

The film begins at Chinese New Year 1999 – the dawning of a new age. Tao line dances and conga lines to The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West before joining in the celebrations by singing a song in the town square. She’s good friends with Liangzi whose company she seems to enjoy and they seem to get on together very well but it’s unclear if there’s anything more to it than that. Obnoxious rich boy Jiangsheng is also VERY interested in Tao and resents her friendship with Liangzi. Eventually things come to a head and Tao has to choose, and she does but in trying not to hurt anyone she ends up hurting everyone. On Tao’s eventual marriage to Jiangsheng, Liangzi, heartbroken, leaves town intending never to return. The segment ends with the birth of Tao and Jiansheng’s son, Dollar.

In 2014, Tao is divorced and Jiangsheng has taken her son to live with him in Shanghai where he’s a high stakes capitalist mogul. Liangzi, meanwhile, has married and had a child but has ended up working in a coal mine and has now become gravely ill. Unable to work he returns home and considers asking friends and family to help him through these difficult times. Sometime later a family tragedy occurs – the one silver lining being that Tao gets to see Dollar again but he barely remembers her and makes constant phone calls to his “mommy” in Shanghai.

In 2025, Dollar and Jingsheng have moved to Australia. Dollar is taking classes in Chinese which he barely remembers while Jingsheng has become a dishevelled and angry old man. Dollar has almost no memory of his real mother or his childhood in China and starts up an oedipal relationship with a lonely, middle-aged Chinese woman.

Jia paints the passing of time through a series of expanding screen ratios – beginning with 4:3 in 1999, to 16:9 in 2014 and finally 2.35:1 in 2025. The world literally gets bigger, wider, and our focus shifts from Tao to a more expansive canvas of displaced Chinese citizens finally reaching far across the seas. The first segment is more like Jia’s earlier films as Tao is caught between two lovers with possibly tragic consequences whereas the second part has more in common with his more recent work but part three takes things in an entirely new direction.

The 2025 segment doesn’t even feature Tao until the very end and focuses on her son – the ironically named “Dollar”. Having lived the last ten years in Australia he barely speaks Mandarin and has become an angry young man determined to drop out of college because “nothing really interests” him. Jinsheng never learned English and the pair can’t communicate. Gone is Jinsheng’s swagger – now he has a paunch, dishevelled hair and an unruly mustache. In 1999 he dressed in the self consciously stylish clothes of someone who has money and really wants you know it, but now his clothes are worn out and typical of any old man you might find sitting reading a paper on the side of a road. Dollar is lost. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with his Chinese teacher that’s founded on the shared loneliness of two people who’ve been separated from their homelands and loved ones. Looking for his mother in all the wrong places, Dollar’s eventual romance is likely to end in tears but luckily his Chinese teacher is a wise and kind woman who is able to offer some of her wisdom and a steady hand of guidance.

Though much has been made of the “futurism” of the 2025 segment, it’s in no way a science fiction experiment. The chief difference, as might be expected, is in technology though even this is subtle – see through tablets, electronic displays rather than blackboards (only a little more advanced than many institutions already use) and a much more intuitive embedding of google translate. More distracting are the strange anachronisms – vinyl records being played on a classroom turntable, visiting a travel agent to book a flight (does anyone even do this now?) and a preference for older cars. Most damaging though is that, as it’s set in Australia, the bulk of the dialogue is in English which somehow never sounds convincing despite the quality performances on offer.

Dollar wants his freedom from his overbearing, failure of a father though freedom itself is also a burden. The son flails aimlessly while the literal motherland, Tao, is alone, abandoned and forgotten. There’s something quite heartbreaking in the way Jia sculpts his overarching story. We begin with so much hope as Tao and her friends dance enthusiastically to the rather ironic choice of Go West in 1999 as her life is just beginning. When she dances to it again, alone, with the snow falling all around her it’s as if she’s crawled inside a memory, reliving a happy day rather than exulting in the now.

Mountains May Depart is a rich and complex film that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. Jia wants to ask us where we’re going, and where we’ve been – China’s modernisation has occurred at such a breakneck speed that it’s left an entire nation bewildered. Facing a choice between “going west” and “taking care” of Chinese values (Sally Yeh’s 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care forms the opposing musical motif of the film) many, like Tao, have found themselves choosing poorly and paying a heavy price. What’s in store? A lonely, but wealthy, future devoid of all human connection where “sons” forget their “mothers”? The title suggests old friends like mountains and rivers never part but once the erosion sets in mountains crumble and rivers run dry – you have to look around you and remember what it is that’s really worth living for.

This is getting a full UK release from New Wave Films in Spring 2016!

For the curious here is Sally Yeh’s (葉蒨文) 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care (珍重) which does its best to tug at the heartstrings throughout the later part of the film (and largely succeeds).

First published by UK Anime Network.

Like Someone in Love (UK Anime Network Review)

Like_someone_in_love_quad_v5_HRFirst published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.

Like Someone In Love is only Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s second international venture after 2010’s Certified Copy but this time sees his familiar preoccupations with ambiguities and poetic imagery transported to modern day Tokyo. Although in this case all the characters are quite clearly drawn and presented somewhat unambiguously, the reasoning behind the decisions they make and the way they behave, however, remains oblique. The title implies someone is acting ‘like someone in love’ if not exactly ‘in love’ themselves but who is it, who or what are they (‘almost’?) in love with, and what exactly would that mean – these are all the gentle ambiguities that Kiarostami wishes us to think about in this perfectly excised cross section of modern life.

As the film opens we are placed statically looking onto a scene which appears to be some sort of bar, a woman’s voice can be heard speaking to someone – not us, this clearly isn’t a voice over, there is obviously someone else involved in this dialogue that we cannot hear. We search the screen for the owner of the voice and even though we can see that nobody else is speaking somehow the thought that the woman is off camera hasn’t quite occurred to us. Eventually we find a young woman has been talking on the phone, presumably to her boyfriend – ‘I’m not lying’ she says, though we know she is. The boyfriend suspects her and makes her go to the bathroom to count the number of tiles so he can come there later and compare to see if she’s telling the truth.

Shortly afterwards, an older man (Denden) starts talking to her and encourages her to break up with said jealous boyfriend ‘not just for business reasons’ but as fatherly advice. He wants her to visit ‘a very important man’, she doesn’t want to because she’s tired after cramming all night for an exam and anyway her grandmother is in town and she’d like to see her. The man makes it very clear he isn’t forcing her, but he leaves her no room to refuse and she goes anyway even though she doesn’t want to. He puts her in a taxi for an hour’s drive across the city – on the way she gets a message from her grandmother that she’ll be waiting outside the station until her train so Akiko (Rin Takanashi) asks the driver to pass the station twice just so she can catch a glimpse of her.

Fast asleep in the car she arrives at a rather nondescript little address behind a ramen shop where a retired sociology professor (now sometime translator), Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), lives. As soon as they enter the phone rings and Akiko takes the opportunity to poke around – she finds some pictures of an older and a younger woman – a wife and daughter perhaps? Strangely they look a little like her, as does the woman trying to teach a parrot to speak in the famous print on one wall.  ‘I always thought the parrot was teaching the woman’ Akiko says and the professor laughs. Still tired she makes straight for the bedroom, undresses and gets into the bed. This wasn’t what the old man had in mind though – he’s cooked a full dinner and bought wine, soft music ‘Like Someone in Love’ is playing in the background. After trying to convince her to eat and failing the professor gives up and turns the light out to let her sleep.

The next morning he drives her to school only to witness an altercation with the jealous boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) who’s been lurking in wait after not being able to get through on Akiko’s phone. It’s clear he’s angry, he grabs at her then sulks after she goes inside before trying to talk to the professor, mistakenly thinking he’s her grandfather. He of course keeps up the pretense simply by not (directly) correcting the mistake. It’s clear though that something is coming to head and the meeting of these three people is going to produce a fundamental change in one or all of their lives.

Like Someone in Love might be one of those films where the reaction to it says much more about the viewer than it does about the film. It’s so much more about what isn’t said, the things that one infers from brief snippets of possible backstory than it is about what is actually seen on the screen. We don’t know exactly why Akiko got into this line of work or why she does it or even how she really feels about it. It’s plain in the first scene that she doesn’t want to go, at least tonight, and that she’s refused to go before but when she arrives at Watabe’s house she’s anything but coy and seems every inch the seasoned pro ready to get down to business. She’s a cipher, the clearest thing you can say about her is that she’s defined by her own passivity. She says she won’t go and then bows to pressure and goes, she obviously wants to break up with her awful boyfriend but doesn’t, she wants to see her grandmother but obeys her pimp(?) instead. She seems to spend her entire life bowing to the whims of other people rather than making any sort of decision for herself.

The two men by contrast appear as virtual mirror images of each other. The elderly scholar Watanabe, contemplative and introspective and the violent, obsessively jealous high school dropout garage owning Noriaki. What is Watanabe’s interest in Akiko? Is this something he’s done often? it seems maybe not, perhaps this is a gift from his former student now Akiko’s ‘boss’. At any rate it seems he’s after some kind of romantic evening rather than a torrid few moments in bed with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. He’s arranged things for her comfort – cooking her local dish, lighting candles, setting the dinner table etc just as someone in love might do. Perhaps he’s just lonely (though his phone is always ringing and he never answers it) and wants to relive fondly remembered memories of his wife. Noriaki by contrast seems much more territorial – he wants to own Akiko, he’s decided she’s useless on her own and needs his protection but he’s obviously terrified someone’s going to steal her out from under him. He’s also hugely over sensitive about the phone box card which looks like Akiko (because we know it is) maybe because he’s got a Madonna-whore conception of women to begin with.

The film ends as abruptly as it started which is inevitably going to be a problem for many viewers. This is not the end, but it is an end – perhaps the beginning of something new rather than the end of something old. An internal world is penetrated – like the intrusion of falling in love into an otherwise dull life, old securities prove inadequate and perhaps it’s harder to protect the things that are precious to you than you might hope (especially if you are old and your aggressor is not). In many ways we are like the old curtain twitcher whose sole entertainment is her window onto Watanabe’s doorstep – we can’t know what happened before our one and only window was opened, nor can we know what will happen once it’s closed but still we can’t help but wonder.

Available now in the UK from New Wave Films.