An Elephant Sitting Still (China, 2018) and the movement of emotion-as-space [New Directors/New Films 2018]

In the late Hu Bo’s first and last film, scenes revolve around the inhabitants of an apartment complex located somewhere in northern China, all of which take place in the span of one day: high school student Weibu (Peng Yuchang) and his parents, whose tensions with each other are seemingly part of their everyday, as one first sees them at the table; a couple who turns out to be the wife and best friend of the husband; another three-member family plus a grandfather, who is pushed to live in a nursing home for the sake of space; a mother and daughter, Huangling (Wang Yuwen), who goes to the same high school as Weibu. Incredibly intimate interactions are captured in long takes in each of the inhabitants’ apartments initially and then gradually throughout the town, as encounters happen, situations develop, and decisions are made. A handheld, shifting, hovering camera merges with the air around actors and the spaces in which they move and intermingle with each other, and persists in proximity to bodies and faces. Tight framing, however, deprives the spectator of having any full sense of the layout of the town, however much the camera may shadow the characters, but thus concentrates on drawing out individual and collective psyches. So unremitting is the film’s focus on (shifting of) feeling through length of shots, proximity of camera to faces/bodies, and the camera’s constant mobility that perhaps its most astounding aspect is the way in which mood and feeling assume such prominence that they take on material, bodily form and thereby constitute space. An Elephant Sitting Still, then, can be described as an investigation of emotion-as-space, space-as-emotion.

Correction, then: the spectator is not so much deprived of the spatial layout of the town than presented with an emotional one that becomes so thick in its accumulation that it becomes spatial, with the body poised as a delicate bridge connecting the two. Inversely, in the beginning, a male voiceover intones about an elephant sitting still in a circus in the city of Manzhouli. In the course of the film, this spatial reference develops into an emotional one as a possible space of emotional escape from the town.

The film arguably possesses two movements that fold organically into each other, such that despite its nearly four-hour running time, at no point does the film become unwieldy or overly ponderous. One, which encompasses getting to know the characters and their family/social lives in the apartments and/or the relationships/situations that unfold in them, which in turn partly shape their trajectory for the remainder of the film. One of the scenes from this first movement that brings together long take, camera proximity, and camera mobility, and strikingly establishes a character’s emotion-as-space, is with Yucheng (Zhang Yu). Yucheng finds himself stuck in his friend’s wife’s apartment the morning after when the husband drops by. Beginning with a close-up of Yucheng hiding in the bathroom but readily visible, the shot widens as the camera moves back to encompass more space, into which his friend enters from the left side of the frame, facing the side and initially not seeing Yucheng. When he turns his head in seeming frustration and fatigue, he sees Yucheng and then exits right, jumping off the balcony. Yucheng’s witnessing and emotional turmoil despite his expressionless face is then emphasised when the camera returns to a close-up of him.

Two, which encompasses the characters’ experiences around the town, giving way to unexpected interconnections and encounters, more pronounced individualities, and eventually the singling out of four main characters: Weibu, Huangling, the grandfather Liaojin (Liu Congxin), and Yucheng. This second movement is more or less marked by the appearance of the film’s other main location, the high school. Here, one sees Weibu and his friend bullied by a fellow student who turns out to be Yucheng’s younger brother, and Weibu and Huangling speaking to each other. As interconnections and encounters accumulate, the mood of darkness and despair becomes more pronounced, as if this undisclosed town were cursed. If it is cursed, it involves each person being so engrossed in oneself, to the detriment of becoming emotionally stunted and/or numb. Whenever one is coaxed to interact, instead of feeling empathy first, one immediately gives in to anger, entitlement, and self-preservation. No thinking of the other here, but rather a ‘me first’ mentality against which Weibu, Huangling, Liaojin, and also Yucheng (whose emotional growth is perhaps the most palpable in the film) must struggle both emotionally and spatially.

Familial relations thus get the worst depiction: Liaojin’s son and family nudging him to a nursing home; Weibu’s father’s verbal abuse towards his family – even Weibu’s aunt and uncle dearth of a relationship with his grandmother; Yucheng and his parents’ physical/verbal abuse towards him, especially after what happens between his younger brother, Weibu, and his friend; and Huangling’s stifling relationship with her mother. Consequently, characters try to develop more emotionally satisfying bonds outside of their families: Weibu, Huangling, and Liaojin; Huangling and the vice dean; even Yucheng and Weibu, however short-lived such bonds may be, by choice or by necessity.

Fitting, therefore, are the younger characters voicing the film’s emotional and spatial perspective of life, the inhabitants, and the town:

Weibu states rather than asks the vice dean at one point, ‘Why are you so positive about your future?’

As if answering Weibu, a fellow student at the school states later, to Weibu but also to no one in particular, ‘The world is a wasteland.’

In a rather philosophical moment, in a diner/café with the vice dean, Huangling suddenly murmurs aloud, ‘What do people make of things happening to them?’

For Weibu and Huangling, their statements present calm, thoughtful moments before an incident wreaks havoc on their private and public lives, impulsively or accidentally ‘resolved’ through violence.

At work here is thus a dramatic pause-burst-pause structure, not unlike the sudden ruptures of violence in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013) or Johnnie To’s two Election films (2005/2006). The references here are explicitly deliberate, as Hu Bo with this film treads on similar territory as Jia and To in examining the dissolution of not society per se but social relationships – or, better yet, the criteria on which they are created – beginning with that most central one that is the family.

An Elephant Standing Still is showing on April 1 and 8 as part of MoMA’s 2018 ‘New Directors/New Films’ series.