' ' Cinema Romantico: An Elephant Sitting Still

Monday, March 23, 2020

An Elephant Sitting Still

Time, as it turned out, was the foremost subject at the movies in 2019. “The Irishman” ran three-and-a-half hours to demonstrate how all the time in the world is still not enough to come to terms with the things we’ve done. The underseen “Colewell”, meanwhile, conveyed how time gets away from us even if we manage to slow it down. And as time passed the characters of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” by, they still found a way to stop and reverse it, briefly ceasing its inexorable march. Even the tentpoles, explicitly or inadvertently, dealt with time. “Avengers: Endgame” was all about a time heist, so to speak, while “Rise of Skywalker” manifested a never-ending urge to flip the page back after it’s been turned. And that, finally, brings us to “An Elephant Sitting Still.” Lord don’t let the people who thought “The Irishman” was too long see the run time on this one. At three hours and fifty-four minutes, the debut feature film of Hu Bo might seem endless but that, of course, is the point. And even if, as the saying goes, you “get it”, you won’t really “get it” unless you go through it, and feel how Bo expertly, effortlessly, exhaustively, exhaustingly contorts time so that it feels at once never-ending and devoid of all meaning.

I confess, I did not watch “An Elephant Sitting Still” in one setting. I watched it an hour at a time. So I can’t speak to the unceasing 234 minute experience, and perhaps that rules me out of order. But sliding in and out of its unchanging style seemed valuable, like returning again and again to an album that you think this time might work differently but doesn’t. That’s not to imply I disliked “An Elephant Sitting Still.” Far from it. Taking place over 24 hours, the unchanging grim, grey palette makes it feels like days and days rather than just one, as if a day last weeks and months or like weeks and months last a day. The setting is a northern Chinese industrial town, or maybe it’s the end of the world. Indeed, when the teenage Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) pays a visit to his grandmother, her home has no door, just a blanket for a divider, and she’s dead, though the movie plays this much less as shock than a shrug, with Yuchang not changing his dour air one iota and the camera hanging back, as if the grief is far, far away. And when Wei Bu informs a nearby relative of her death, the relative not only hardly seems concerned but angry to have been told at all.

This sense of being closed off from everyone is underscored in the claustrophobic camerawork, which is not merely a series of intense close-ups but a judicious consideration of what is and what is not in the frame. Frequently characters looming in the foreground listen, silently, as characters in the background, fuzzy and out of focus, if not off screen altogether, rendering their their words meaningless to the listener. If characters aren’t listening, they are most likely wandering, which isn’t just an adjective in place of walking but the truth, wandering with no point or purpose, the camera at their backs, suggesting the melancholy air over hovering over their shoulders even as the camera betrays how there is nothing in front of them but more ugly buildings, more grey skies. When Wei Bu comes across an immense train yard, his scream into the distance is virtually swallowed up by the imminent void.

There are not so much stories here as an accumulation of scattered details. Wei Bu’s father, his leg in a cast, out of work, bullies his son, who is bullied at school too, angrily if inadvertently shoving the bully down the stairs, killing him. The school, though, does not intervene, knowing the bully’s family runs the town, leaving the bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), to seek vengeance. Wei Bu’s friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is in a relationship with their school’s Vice Dean, which becomes public and a scandal. Each of these details is hardly seen through in any meaningful way, evoked in how slowly and dispassionately Yu Cheng tends to his task, admitting dislike for his brother, bound by pesky blood, epitomizing the futility of the setting’s institutions, families and the school failing each person, which is what leaves them to wander, untethered from any sense of connection with the community.

It’s a bleak portrait rarely, if at all, tempered by hope. That lack of hope comes through in the characters’ ostensible quest, which isn’t really a quest at all, just a recurring fantasy about a nearby city with an elephant, one who sits all day, they say, unbothered by society. That, frankly, sounds less like a dream than a metaphor for depression, maybe for something worse, which is why the awe-inspiring final shot, when the camera finally sees its characters in long shot, giving us room to breathe, feels like a release in more ways than one.

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