Bo Hu

7.7 An Elephant Sitting Still

Bo Hu (China, 1988 - the last name is Hu) debuted with the short film Distant Father (2014). He then published the novels "Huge Crack" (2017) and "Bullfrog" (2017). Bo Hu committed suicide in 2017 at the age of 29. His only full-length film, the four-hour An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), came out after his suicide. The film is a massive ode to unhappiness, solitude and depression. The protagonists, abandoned by everybody, are desperately trying to find meaning in a cruel and selfish society. The action takes place in one day and the film ends in the middle of the night. Following the story can be a painful experience because Hu deliberately films dark scenes, sometimes pitting dark interiors against the bright light of outside like an amateur cinematographer. The camera often follows the characters as they talk or walk, so we only see their backs. The closeups of their faces are often deliberately made against a blurred background, so that we can't see the faces of the other people and can't quite see the details of what is going on. We have to guess all of this. Many actions are not shown: the suicide, the kid rolling down the stairs, the dog attack, the baseball bat attack, ... We can barely see the blurred feet of the dead granma lying on her bed. A voiceover tells us that in the city of Manzhouli there is an elephant that is simply sitting and we see a snowy landscape (but no elephant). The action takes place in a small provincial town. Then three stories begin. The first one is about a high-school kid who is harassed and insulted by his father, who accuses him of being lazy and of stealing. The second one is about two lovers who don't seem to be happy. The third one is about an old man who is told by his son that they want him to move to a nursing home because they need to buy a house near a better school for his granddaughter, and, given the higher price, it will be too small for all of them. The old man is already sleeping on the balcony. The old man listens silently and is only concerned about his little dog, that would not be allowed in the nursing home. He also mentions that this is his house after all, but that doesn't seem to matter. Meanwhile, the high-school kid, Wei Bu, walks to school with his friend Li Kai who is terrified because the school's bully claims that he stole his phone. LiKai shows him the gun he stole from his dad. Wei Bu suggests that he simply buys a new phone for the bully to avoid trouble. Wei Bu has stolen the baton that his father (apparently a former teacher) used to interrogate students. Meanwhile, the lovers are surprised by the sudden arrival of the woman's husband. The husband senses that someone else is in the house and finds the lover. It turns out that they are best friends. The husband jumps from the window. A fourth story begins. A girl finds that the toilet is leaking and the bathroom is flooded. Her mother, who caused the flooding, is lying on a couch and does nothing about it. The mother, on the other hand, accuses the girl of crushing a cake that she bought from a bakery. Meanwhile, Wei Bu and Li Kai are confronted by the bully Yu Shuai and his friends, who give Li Kai an ultimatum to deliver the stolen phone. Wei Bu is told by the vice dean that the school is about to be demolished. The vice dean tells him they (the students) will be sent to the worst school in town and at best they will become street vendors. Wei Bu meets the girl, Huang Ling. The girl advises him not to mess with the bully because the bully's brother is a dangerous thug. Meanwhile, the old man discusses the nursery home with a friend. While they are chatting a woman asks frantically if they have seen her dog, a big white dog. Meanwhile, the cheating wife and her lover argue over the husband's suicide. He tells her that the man killed himself because of her vanity: she forced him to buy an apartment that he could not afford with his meager salary. He doesn't feel guilty, but she reminds him that he was the husband's only friend (and he betrayed him). Wei Bu and Li Kai meet the bully Yu Shuai again. The bully terrorizes them but makes the mistake of offending Wei Bu when he mentions that his father was fired for taking bribes. The bully then asks them to get on their knees and then to buy him a new phone. Wei Bu loses his temper and pushes him down the stairs. Then he runs away. Then the lover, Yu Cheng, receives a phone call from his mother telling him that his little brother Yu Shuai has been beaten at school: we realize that the lover is the thug mentioned by the girl. The old man is walking in a narrow alley when a big white dog attacks his little dog and kills it. Wei Bu is walking home, tense and scared, when a woman asks him if he has seen her big white dog. At home Wei Bu realizes that his father has taken all the money that Wei Bu kept under the mattress. Wei Bu packs his backpack and walks out without saying a word. The old man sees the poster about the big white dog that the woman is posting around town and notes the address. Meanwhile the students of the high school watch as the ambulance takes Yu Shaui away. Wei Bu takes the bus to his granma's place. He walks inside and finds her dead. He steals her money, then walks to his uncle's place and tells him that granma is dead before walking away silently. Obviously nobody visited her in a while and she died all alone, and the kid is resentful. The old man knocks at the door of the family of the big white dog. The woman asks frantically about the missing dog but the old man tells her that her dog killed his dog, which he shows. Her husband takes over, refusing any responsibility. Meanwhile, Wei Bu walks into a billiard joint and picks up his cue. He offers to sell it. He walks out just when Yu Shuai's brother (the lover) walks in looking for him: someone must have told him where to find him. Wei Bu takes a taxi to the monkey park where. The girl at home has another argument with her horrible mother, who shames her for seeing Wei Bu. Wei Bu accidentally runs into the old man who is still carrying the dead dog and tries to sell him the cue. The old man refuses. Just then the man who owns the big white dog start following them in his car shouting at the old man: he doesn't care that the old man's dog was killed but wants to know where his own dog is. The old man ignores him but Wei Bu instead reacts to the aggressor, threatening to scratch his car with the cue. The dog's owner kicks him a few times and leaves. The old man, impressed by the kid's courage, gives him some money and Wei Bu gifts him the cue. Wei Bu tells him that he wants to buy a bus ticket to Manzhouli where there is a sitting elephant. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng is back at the apartment. The cheating wife tells him that she didn't tell anyone that he was there when the suicide happened. The lover walks outside where the dead man's mother is mourning and pretends that he just heard the news. Wei Bu meets the high-school girl at the monkey park and asks her to leave with him but she refuses. Wei Bu tells her that he didn't know his father took bribes until that day. She asks him what he will do in Manzhouli and he replies that he will work. But she points out that he's only good at playing shuttlecock. Meanwhile, Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng and Yu Shuai's friends find the old man with Wei Bu's cue and assume that the old man is related to Wei Bu. They harass his family and then him. The old man's son abandons him when he sees him surrounded by the thugs. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng admits that his brother is a piece of garbage but he's still his brother. The old man cannot tell them anything about Wei Bu. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng decides to walk to the train station and leaves the other two thugs with the old man. As soon as he walks away, the old man attacks the two thugs with the cue. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng coldly walks towards the station smoking a cigarette when he sees a high-school boy staring at a cafe. He stops by. The boy is Wei Bu but Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng doesn't know. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng sees that the boy is staring at a girl and an old man who are having a date inside the restaurant. He tells Wei Bu that the old man is the vice dean of the school, which Wei Bu already knows. Yu Shuai's brother Yu Cheng encourages him to take action, and warns him not to become like him, and then continues walking towards the train station. Wei Bu only writes a note and runs to post it on the window of the cafe. Now the film moves back a few minutes showing us the high-school girl who is having a date with the vice dean. The vice dean tells her why the school didn't call the police: Yu Shuai's family owns a car dealership. The vice dean also tells her a story that shows what a vile man he is. She tells him that she saw him pick up a child: he is not divorced, as he must have told her. That's when Wei Bu runs from across the street and posts the note. She runs outside but he has already disappeared. When she walks back in, the vice dean tells her that he saw Wei Bu standing outside for a while. Yu Cheng meets a woman and they enter a restaurant. Yu Cheng tells her that it's her fault if a man committed suicide that morning: she rejected him and that's why he slept with his best friend's wife. Their conversation is interrupted by screams by the restaurant's chef who is engulfed in fire: Yu Cheng courageously walks into the kitchen and saves his life, but burns his right hand. Ling follows the vice dean in his apartment. They are about to sleep together but she receives a call from a school friend who tells her to watch the video that is circulating online: it's a compromising video of her and the vice dean: the vice dean realizes that his career is ruined and, indifferent to her feelings, kicks her out. Yu Cheng and the woman who rejected him walk into a tunnel. He tells her that his life is a dumpster and asks her to leave with him, but she rejects him again. He tells her that his best friend, the husband who committed suicide, one day told him of a sitting elephant in Manzhouli. Wei Bu calls Li Kai. When Li Kai shows up, Wei Bu drags him into the basement and almost beats him up: he is angry that Li Kai told his parents what happened, but Li Kai claims he did it to help him. Li Kai also confesses that he did steal Yu Shuai's phone. He stole it because Yu Shuai had collected compromising videos of everybody, including one of Li Kai peeing... and including a video of Ling with the vice dean.. The old man, always carrying the cue that he got from Wei Bu, visits the nursing home and gets depressed seeing how the abandoned old people live there. Ling is also roaming the streets and sees a poster of the Manzhouli zoo where the sitting elephant is. Wei Bu stops by the hospital and overhears Yu Shuai's mom yelling at Yu Cheng because he still has not exacted revenge. Wei Bu walks back into the street and has a violent argument with some old men who are playing shuttlecock. He keeps walking and suddenly he stops and shouts all his hatred for the town (or for himself?) At the train station he is approached by a scammer who offers him a train ticket which naively the boy buys. Ling, back home, tells her mother that she has been having an affair with the vice dean. Ling tells her mother that she is disgusted by the filth of their apartment compared with the vice dean's tidy apartment. Her mother yells back that she was abandoned by Ling's father and has to work for a living. Ling cries and locks herself in her room, ready to leave. The vice dean and his wife show up. The man's wife is angry at Ling's mother and demands to confront the girl. Ling elopes from the window of her room, but then walks back into the house armed with a baseball bat and attacks both the vice dean and his wife (we are not told if they die). The old man at the train station buys one ticket for himself and a ticket for a child, and then kidnaps his granddaughter. Wei Bu realized that he has been sold a fake ticket, finds the scammer and demands he returns his money. The thug asks Wei Bu to follow him and Wei Bu naively follows him. Of course it's a trap. Another thug is waiting there and the two rob him of his id and money. But the id reveals Wei Bu's name, and they are thugs of Yu Cheng's gang, so they call Yu Cheng that they found Wei Bu. While they wait, they also punch him in the face. When Yu Cheng arrives, with the bandaged right hand, Yu Cheng tells Wei Bu that Yu Shuai's died. Wei Bu explains that it was an accident. Yu Cheng tells him that he didn't like his brother. Yu Cheng cries. Then he calls his best friend's mother and confesses that he was in the apartment when the man committed suicide. Wei Bu tells Yu Cheng that he is going to Manzhouli to see the sitting elephant. Yu Cheng, instead of taking the revenge that his parents demand, sends his thugs to buy Wei Bu's train ticket. Wei Bu is puzzled and asks why Yu Cheng is being nice to him. Yu Cheng only points out that Wei Bu is now a killer, and therefore cursed. Suddenly, Li Kai appears brandishing his gun. Yu Cheng's thugs attack him from behind but Li Kai has time to wound Yu Cheng and the thugs flee. Wei Bu is embarrassed by Li Kai's action but leaves without checking on Yu Cheng, who is wounded on the groud. Li Kai kills himself with the gun (not clear why). The old man with his granddaughter, Ling and Wei Bu all arrive at the train station at the same time, but the train has been canceled. Ling proposes to take a night bus. Wei Bu accepts. The old man decides to go back and accept the nursing home but Wei Bu asks him to join them. The old man warns him that the world is all the same. They all board the bus. The bus stops in the middle of the night to let the passengers stretch their legs. They play shuttlecock in the dark. We hear an elephant's trumpet.
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