An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) Dir. Hu Bo - Review
In regards to what most people would consider acceptable and enjoyable, Bela Tarr has always been someone whose films are (literally) inaccessible and unenjoyable. With the works of Werckmeister Harmonies and Satantango being hailed as hallmarks of cinema by a niche group of individuals, it isn't hard to see how his unique works would find an audience given their material and aesthetics. They are transcendit pieces that exist in a reality separate from our own, which is ironic given the brutally realistic way they are shot in. Tarr does this by engaging in what is known as Cinema Verite, a documentary style of shooting that is meant to be as realistic as possible (He is also more commonly known as a proponent of slow cinema, but I find it is more important to distinguish the style of shooting he is using rather than the broad movement he is part of). Marked by long takes, lack of cutting, and overall slower camera movements, it finds itself nestled at the very end of the spectrum of slow cinema, the most extreme form of it possible. It's harsh, unwavering and truly hard to watch. There are no other films like a Bela Tarr film, he really does craft his own distinct pieces. However, there's a problem that arises from shooting films in this cold, unemotional manner. They take on a Nihilistic over tone, they become aggressively stylistic and angry and impersonal towards the characters on the screen. The camera loses its love for the subject. It is because of this that Tarr’s works least Werckmeister Harmonies have always been the subject of scrutiny in regards towards being a misanthrope and overall rejecting meaning in his films. This can be highlighted by when he spoke on the overarching meaning of The Turin Horse: “[on A torinói ló (2011)] You are doing always the same thing every day, but every day is a little bit different, and the life is just getting weaker and weaker, and, by the end, disappears. This is what this movie shows you.” Tarr seemed to be missing what most people looked for in cinema with his work: broader meaning. The tools for a realist piece of filmmaking that engaged and gripped the audience with its sincerity and love were there, but he focused in on different aspect of life instead. This isnt to discredit Tarr or even denounce his works, I just find that for what Im looking for in cinema, his student Hu Bo did it differently.
Hu Bo is an interesting individual when it comes to individual progression in cinema. His early works are not really anything to write about and are for the most part, incredibly hard to find outside of chinese websites and torrents. I am not entirely certain how he came into the hands of Bela Tarr (I believe FIRST contacted him to be a mentor)or even how Hu made it into FIRST considering its strict guidelines, but one way or another Hu managed to make it into the FIRST training camp, and have Tarr as his mentor. It was here that he created The Man in the Well (2016). I don't have a lot to write about this short film, its aesthetics and plastics are very, VERY heavily influenced by Tarr’s prior works (Slow camera movements, stark black and white photography with a red filter over it, filthy and vile Mise En Scene.) The most interesting part however, was the development of his camera work. It detached from the tripod, and moved fluidly through the space with the Actors. The camera is an object that moves through space and interprets ideas much like how the german idealists argued for a similar idea in the 1800s, and it seemed as though that Hu Bo was getting closer and closer to depicting the true and good. The ultimate goal of any film is finding meaning and depicting the true and good, no matter how painful; this is what makes Hu Bo’s first and only full length venture An Elephant Sitting Still, so beautiful. Depicting the lives of 4 individuals over the course of one day, Hu Bo managed to capture the pains and suffering of different generations in just 4 short hours. From the generation raised on the collapse of mainland china and Mao’s cultural revolution, to the Gen X who suffered under the communist regime and its climb to power, and finally the most recent generation (my generation of Millenials and Gen Z individuals) who are left to deal with the socio political and economic damage done by the generations passed. This film is the chinese people at its most raw and vulnerable. There is no other piece of work from the last 20 years as poignant as this one, it truly captures the damage done by harsh political climates and economic decay. The mise en scene reflects the generation of Chinese people who were unfortunately not fortunate enough to become part of the billionaire or even millionaire class who profited off of the sale of oil to their government or in some cases the profiteering of different commodities through scam and fraud. The buildings are full of decay, the food looks disgusting, the people look weathered, and above all the air is full of pollution. Hu Bo doesn't hold back, he is tired of his government showing showcases of what the world SHOULD think about what their country looks like instead of what is happening to the everyday people inside. Stagnation, nihilism, regret and hatred; these are the qualities of the environment and people in Hu’s film. Yet, there's a defining difference between him and his teacher: hope. Hu Bo shoots his films in the most personal manner possible, keeping only a 50mm lens and a close angle on the characters at all times. The camera follows them around because he cares about them the most and their sufferings. Hu Bo himself was suffering from mental illness when he completed this film, and it's apparent in the way that many of the characters deal with depression and anxiety. Each character in this film, from the student Wei Bu, to the gang leader and his cronies, all have something crushing them on the inside. They’ve all reacted out of pain and suffering. And isn't this a rising trend in today’s society? Mental illness is increasing RAPIDLY, with people being diagnosed left and right. What I personally find most endearing about the film though, is its constant refusal to give up. Every character is still holding onto something, even if it's small and insignificant. The elephant is a red herring for everyone, this should be obvious to the viewer that it was an intentional choice. Hu Bo much like anyone else with desperation and hopelessness, arent clinging to specific events or memories, but the idea that one of these things will inevitably make them feel whole. Even at the end of the journey, all of the individuals involved and their terrible atrocities committed, are still feeling hopeful even for just a short while. It is through generational films like Hu Bo’s that we will find meaning and discourse, the ability to look at the suffering and troubles of other people and be able to empathize with them. It is something that Tarr lacked, yet mourns for greatly with the loss of Hu Bo. I find that even while Hu Bo’s film was incredibly Nihilistic and angry, its essence and meaning overrode the director’s initial intentions.
It is a shame that Hu Bo took his own life, I truly believe he could have been one of the greatest filmmakers. I would like to impose a question(s) to all filmmakers out there who continue to argue for the aspect of entertainment over art: If your film isn’t meaningful, why make it? We must strive to be better people, better filmmakers, better family members and friends. I know Hu Bo saw how divided and hurt people were, I just wish he could see how beautiful his film was.
-Tylor Myers 22 Oct, 2020