Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 17, 2018 8:43 pm 
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Extraordinary first film, by a young director too soon lost

This four-hour, intimate, almost real-time epic follows several people of different ages at the end of their tether who converge finally at the train station heading for the same escape, the city of Manzhouli where they say an elephant simply sits and ignores the world. The style made me, like others, think both of Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day) and Jia Zhang-ke (Unknown Pleasures), and this profound, ambitious work of an impressive new filmmaker takes on a tragic resonance because he committed suicide, at 29, so all this promise will never be realized again. A sad astonishment.

Reviewed at Berlin in Hollywood Reorter by Clarence Tsui: "An Elephant Sitting Still began with a myth — and ended up becoming a myth itself. Revolving around four characters shaken out of their small town stupor by an enigmatic tale about a lethargic pachyderm, the film attained instant cult status among critics at the Berlinale, where it premiered in the Forum sidebar, because of the suicide of its 29-year-old novelist-turned-director Hu Bo last October." Tsui notes debts to Krzysztof Kieslowski and Bela Tarr for its fatalistic worldview and "omnipresent tracking shots."

Another reviewer (actually several, the present writer included) sees elements of Edward Yang and Jia Zhangke. Tsui adds, "Elephant isn’t exactly the film maudit suggested by the difficult circumstances from which it emerged. Long and a bit unwieldy, and self-consciously philosophical in parts, yes, but Hu's first (and sadly last) feature weaves together its narrative threads clearly and sturdily." In Sight and Sound Giovanni Marchini Carnia calls the film "A shattering, soul-searching debut (and one-off)."

Writing for the site Filmstage from Berlin, Zhuo-Ning Su makes some astute observations about this film's strengths and weaknesses, notably how the director "writes microscopically, detailing the characters’ circumstances and choices at every turn, but addresses at the same time something on a much larger scale–an ancient civilization slowly losing its human touch." Zhuo-ning uses some marvellous phrases, calling the film a "grand tapestry of sorry." He's also right on the film's faults, that the "time element" may not be well-considered, making too much happening on the same day, and the "intellectual exposition," the expressions of the hopelessness and meaningless of existence, are unnecessarily repetitive. I simply find the film visually unsatisfying at some points, and too murky in the interiors by half. The much-admired long takes and long tracking shots might have been curtailed, in the interests of economy and toward the achievement of a more manageable run-time. But great talents are sometimes unwieldy and hard to contain.

In any case, the film and the stories it tells haunt you.

The way the camera doggedly, but deftly, follows the people around is somehow both obsessive and calm. In classic fashion, it is an eye: you are there. The world around is indifferent, yet penetrated with violence, cacophonous. It's nowhere and everywhere in contemporary China, dreary, vast, in rapid flux yet somehow also deserted-seeming. There is violence and indifference everywhere.

The narrative follows four main characters. There is a family that wants to put the grandfather, Lao Jin (Congxi Li), a retired man who doesn't look very old and is perfectly agile, into a home for the aged to make more space. And this man loses his dog when it is attacked by another dog that causes its death. A teenage boy, who emerges as the main protagonist, is Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a 17-year-old who stands up for himself and his buddy against the menaces and accusations of the local school bully, which results in a shoving match and the bully's fall down a cement stairway, apparently leaving him dead. Wei Bu's classmate and crush, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), is dating the married vice-principal to escape from her cruel mother. Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), a slick, goodlooking petty hoodlum type, in the area and vaguely connected to the others, we learn later has slept on this momentous day with his best friend's girl, and sees his best friend jump to his death when he knows. The neatly woven action eventually brings these four people together on the way to Manzhouli.

Elephant Sitting Still, 234 mins., debuted at the Berlinale. Also shown at New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review. The late filmmaker, a Beijing Film Academy graduate, had also directed a couple of award-winning short films and published two novels.

Mar. 15 2019: limited theatrical release of the film by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Laudatory essay about it by Richard Brody dated Mar. 6 in The New Yorker.


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