A few doomed people in a Chinese megasuburb gradually intersect over a fateful day, captured in fluid long takes, followed and circled by the camera. Each of their lives was ruined this morning, now they’re in a slow simmering funk, deciding whether they should stay and fight, stay and surrender, or leave town for Manzhouli (near Hailar where the Taming The Horse kids wanted to go) to see a depressed elephant.
Schoolboy Bu pushes the school bully down the stairs, fatally. The bully’s older brother (Yu Cheng of Year of the Everlasting Storm and Snipers) was found sleeping with his best friend’s girl, so the friend threw himself out a window. Schoolgirl Ling has been caught in an affair with an administrator. And an older guy (Li Congxi of Devils on the Doorstep) is being kicked out of his kid’s apartment and sent to a home – and his dog got killed.
Movie feels massive, the long takes and stretched-out day usually working to great effect. Sometimes we’re simply killing time, walking from one place to another, looking at the backs of heads and shirt collars, but then there’s a great moment when we realize time has rewound and we’re seeing the opposite angle on a previous scene.
By the end of the day the old guy gives up his escape plan and heads back home, saying things are just as bad everywhere. Red-jacketed boy with a stolen gun stupidly involves himself, and dies. Floppy-hair guy ends up injured and outcast, and the younger two take a train trip to maybe witness a creature even more despondent than themselves.
with the old man’s granddaughter:
It’s inevitably tempting to read the film as some sort of suicide note, as an expression of a desperation that envisaged no remedy. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find no shortage of evidence in a film built around four deaths (one accidental, one canine, two suicides); in its final moments, a character yells at the people around him (and essentially, at the entire world), “You are all going to hell!” Indeed, everyone here seems already to inhabit an earthly hell; yet the journey that some characters take in its closing stretch suggests some hope, insofar as they’re at least curious enough to go and take a look at an unfamiliar corner of their desolate world.
Romney also ties the elephant to the Werckmeister Harmonies whale and says Hu “was briefly a student of Tarr, traces of whose influence are visible,” and I’m in the middle of reading the Werckmeister source novel so this all tracks.
But whereas Tarr’s cinema articulates itself through metaphysical absorption, Hu’s films retain the carnality of punk and operate on a lower stratum of perception, like an obsessive bassline from a Joy Division song. Despite his very young age, the craft and style of his opera prima are anything but derivative, and are in fact the outcome of an uncompromising vision.
The level of emotional repression is such that virtually every exchange in the film implies the possibility of an aggressive confrontation, with the film’s livid photography chromatically translating a ubiquitous feeling of resentment.
With human agency reduced to its basest instincts, the only way for the four protagonists to come together is by mere coincidence. Their convergence towards the sitting elephant is inertial rather than proactive, as much of their previous lives must presumably have been. The only moments where life is not stoically endured but actually lived are when the characters plot to or deliberately harm someone, be it a random passerby or a next of kin.
The film takes place over a single day but doesn’t sweat continuity, veering between morning, afternoon and evening light throughout. Unmoored in time, viewers are stuck in a perpetual morass. The context for this bad mood is not unfamiliar: with its emphasis on chaos and sudden invitations to violence, Elephant recalls Huang Weikei’s Disorder and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.