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Friday, 10 August 2018

Melbourne International Film Festival - Peter Hourigan reviews 'a masterpiece" - AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (Hu Bo, China)


What is An Elephant Sitting Still?  It is almost four hours long.  It is a Chinese film, the first film of Hu Bo. It is also the last, because the director committed suicide before it was released last year. Its visuals are murky, and the almost complete absence of certainly any additional lighting means it’s often hard to penetrate the scene.  Much of it uses a severely constrained single plane of focus.  A shoulder near the camera will be sharp, but the rest of the scene will be very blurry.  Much of it is comprised of long takes from a static camera.  Or when the camera moves it may take ages to pass along a completely blank wall that sends the whole image dark. It is also one of the most nihilistic films I can imagine.
And it’s undoubtedly a masterpiece.
Set in a former industrial city, its characters are the people who’ve been left behind economically and socially as the rest of the country has, presumably, moved on. We only get a brief glimpse of that other world when one character challenges another to meet him in a new shopping mall. But that’s not the world of these people.
Several of the characters are students at a poor school – in every sense.  It’s got few resources, and it’s seen as educationally the worst school in the area.  It’s about to be closed. The pupils are told they’ll be good enough to get jobs as street food sellers.  One teacher is taking bribes. Another is having an affair with one of the pupils.
And an incident over a phone sets in train the events in the film.  When it goes missing, its bully owner and his gang stand over their suspect, who at least has some support in his innocence from his best friend.  But the plot is not the point of the film as much as the way we’re taken into this depressing world, from which there seems to be no way out.
The visuals are part of this repres-entation.  The murky palette is nearly all greys. Occasionally there are bits of colour, but artificial. At one moment one of the girls has on a pink tracksuit that matches the pink of the apartment block behind her – that cheap over insistent pink that you see in the logos of cheap chain store cosmetics.  But mostly, it’s drab, exhausting from this dead industrial landscape.  And it’s winter, so even the sky is grey.  Then although we don’t see swirls of factory smoke, even the air is dense with pollution, so of course there’s no sunlight to get through to illuminate faces.
There are so many moments in this film of stunning cinematic confidence.  There’s a grandpa who lives with the family of one of the boys. They’re so hard up, they want to put him into care. The old man resists because he can’t take his dog – his only source of affection. But when he loses the dog, he resigns himself to the home. But not before he checks it out.
The camera, in a single take, follows him into the foyer where several old people sit, not talking to each other, but just sitting¸ like they’ve already given up on anything.There’s no companionship there. He goes into a corridor, shuffling slowly, peering in through the vertical glass panel in each door, looking at the inhabitants of each room. And here there is an even more depressing sense of isolation, of people forgotten by the rest of the world.  One particularly empty face peers out at us for a minute or two.  Between rooms, the camera pans close to the drab dark wall that fills the screen for another minute or two with nothing.   Just dark.  No words are needed to say how awful life will be for the old man.
But he goes back to the family, and only says he’s ready to move now.  Absolutely devastating.
I am sure this will be written about in great detail in the future.  I’m not sure how effective it will be on DVD, because there is something extra in that experience of sitting through this world for four hours, with an image so large that it overwhelms you. And I could go on for much more – but I’ve got another day of the Melbourne International Film Festival to gear up for. Will anything else come close?

Hu Bo (1988-2017)

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