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Monday, February 11, 2019

Contrechamp interdit (An Elephant Sitting Still)




The elephant in the room

A man wakes up and murmurs to his lover : « They say there is an elephant in Manhzouli, it sits there all day long and ignores the world. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. » The quirky reputation of this elusive pachyderm becomes a symbol of liberation, escapism and flat out defiance for a handful of protagonists living, or surviving, in an indistinct smoggy city of North-East China.
The reason the still elephant fascinates the characters of this film might be because he’s so mysteriously impervious to the world of pain around him. Maybe they all crave to reach this stoic state of mind, to face the overbearing troubles in their lives, like the Elephant-Buddha.
But this enigmatic eponymous animal could be none other than the spectators themselves… sitting still in front of the silver screen while the world rushes around them at an accelerated pace. Contemplative Cinema aficionados are the last survivors of a post-electronic age. And this film is the cemetery for all these brave elephants.
We are simultaneously reminded of the parable of the Blind Men feeling an elephant by its constituting parts without managing to make sense of the whole picture. One feels the trunk and believes it’s a snake. One feels the side and believe it’s a wall… The film is somehow built in this manner, with four alienated parties missing an outsider’s perspective to fully understand their situation and be understood. Four interlacing pathways.


Director’s Statement

“He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought that the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.” (All the Pretty Horses ; Cormac McCarthy ; 1992)

« This quote from Cormac McCarthy is also the subject of this film. In our age, it’s increasingly hard for us to have faith even in the tiniest of things, and the frustration from which becomes the hallmark of today’s society. The film builds up personal myths in between daily routines. In the end, everyone loses what he or she values the most. »
(HU Bo ; 2017)


Cryptic synopsis

Four portraits of solitudes and humiliations. WEI Bu, high-school student, will get involved in an accident with the school bully in order to defend his best friend. YU Cheng, the bully’s older brother and gangster himself, will push his best friend to extreme lengths because he slept with his wife. WANG Jin, 60-year-old, is begged to move to a nursing home by his son. HUANG Ling, Bu’s crush, fears the consequences of an Internet scandal. The four of them are victims, alienated by their family and friends. Crossing path at some point with one another, always on the move, they all pursue this inscrutable elephant sitting still in Manchuria.


Interlacing pathways

The near-4h long film runs the course of a diegetic day, from dawn tilll dawn. 24 hours of a tragic turn of events, that will collide four persons’ individual lives of three generations and a bunch of side characters, family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Maybe the worst day of their lives. Each protagonist is introduced in the morning separately, in their bed, at home within their family. One after the other, they go about their day, arguing with their loved ones for no reason until a tragedy shatters their preconceptions and alter their life for the worst. Four tragedies involving death or scandal for the least. HU Bo cross-cuts between stories alternatively, never before the 5 min mark. And the segments grow longer as the pathways begin to interlace and interact. Until three out of four protagonists join and take a trip together (but each alone).




The focus zone. Who is left out of focus?

HU Bo carefully composes his frames, always with a powerful foreground. A figure in close-up who consumes the screen almost entirely. The shallow focus sends everything to the background in a blur. And HU Bo doesn’t track focus on the talking person. His rule is to keep the massive close-up figure in sharp focus even when they are only listening or idling. Our eyes sweep the screen for moving details or secondary characters, in vain. Sometimes the face in the foreground close up is in the blur and the main character is in the middle ground. Only when two or three main characters share the same shot do they benefit from a deep focus.
The fixated focus plan reminds us that the point of view of the four main characters only prevails. They are the only persons we should look at (the others are relegated to the corner of our eyes).They are the ones who have a voice in HU Bo’s film. Their environment and the surrounding people are eternally out of focus, as if at a distance, an insurmountable no man’s land that separates the I from Them. The others. These people who fail to understand us, who blame us for everything, who judge our motivation, who invariably miscommunicate, who refuse to listen. HU Bo keeps this dispositif (device) even for a « nape shot ».




Nape camera

Popularised by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne in Rosetta (1999), the « nape shot » or tracking shot from behind, following the footsteps of a characters with always his/her back to the camera, is abundantly utilised by HU Bo in this road movie on foot. Much like Rosetta, where a single protagonist was followed around in her grim daily routine, An Elephant Sitting Still follows around four protagonists alternatively, mostly in nape shots, seldom in frontal shots. The nape shot in shallow focus, puts all the environment in front of the protagonists and the people they meet in a blurry background. The protagonists in medium close up, back to the camera, occupy half of the screen, in sharp focus. We are denied reading the feelings of the protagonists directly in their eyes and on their face. It is frustrating at first but engaging us to project our thoughts. Béla Tarr is also fond of the nape shot, especially in Satantango (1994).


Influences

The Dardenne brothers might be an influence on HU Bo, possibly, but what is certain is that Tarr was his mentor at a workshop of the Xining FIRST festival in 2016 when he developed his script under the supervision of the CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema) master. There is more BélaTarr in An Elephant Sitting Still than there are influences from Chinese masters, because of the darker lighting, the greyscale palette (even though it’s not in black and white), the gloomy society, the depressed characters, the illusion of hope and the disappointment. This said, Chinese CCC masters such as Wang Bing (Three Sisters, 2012) or Jia Zhangke (Unknown Pleasures, 2003) from the Sixth Generation, have blazed the trail for the coming of the 8th Generation.


8th generation

Bi Gan made his debut at 25 year old (Kaili Blues; 2015), and HU Bo at 29 year-old (An Elephant Sitting Still; 2018).Together they represent the brand new Eighth generation of Chinese cinema, according to Pierre Rissient, cinéphile par excellence (who passed away last year). HU Bo passed away in October 2017 after the post-production of his film. Thanks to the achievements of their CCC predecessors, thanks to the support of film festivals, HU Bo and BI Gan have begun their career on a high note. HU Bo with a 4h long debut film. BI Gan with two films ending in a near 50min long take.


 

Ellipses

Visual ellipses are in the frame (shallow focus, nape shot) as well as off screen. The true violence is kept at bay, behind the frame boundaries. When the dog is killed, the camera pans on an onlooker. When someone commits suicide, the camera lets the victim rush off screen or shifts to the side, leaving on screen the face of a witness.
Violence plays out off screen, perhaps because gory action is the most difficult to produce on set without a budget, CGI or stunts. There is a scene where one character rushes in a kitchen on fire to save the burnt cook, and the camera sees the protagonist enter the kitchen, disappear behind a blank wall, in front of which the camera tracks laterally to reveal the result through a window at the other end of the wall. A kind of lateral travelling shot reminiscent of Béla Tarr & Agnès Hranitzky’s Satantango or Damnation (2005).
A temporal ellipsis is also present. One single plan séquence is shot simultaneously from two different points of view and played back to back. One from the point of view of Bu with Cheng, in the street outside a restaurant. And the other is from the point of view of Ling with the school principal, inside the restaurant. Two perspectives of the lunch of an adultery couple. Ling exists the restaurant to chase Bu at the end of the first take, and enters the restaurant at the beginning of the second take, which could be mistaken for a continuity shot… Only after a while do we realise the film just jumped back in time, to rewind a few minutes and offer a new perspective on the same scene.


Darker lighting

Spectators who come out of this marathon screening might recall erroneously a black and white film. However the film is truly in colours, albeit faint colours and grey scales, just like the smoggy city hosting these characters. The whole film is bathed in under lit spaces, without fill in lighting. This creates a sense of doom and gloom prospect in all the shots. The actors aren’t stars, figuratively as well as metaphorically. Unlike a Hollywood star there is no bright light shining on them everywhere they go. The star of the picture is the environment, with a crude light, dim, obscure.


Contemplative mode

HU Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still shares the same narrative mode of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema and each aspect resembles a CCC master.
Plotlessness. No plot, except for the visceral reaction of four people against a sudden tragedy, and their meandering trajectory ejected from a comfort zone orbit. His drastic script resembles Darejan Omirbaev.
Slowness. Long takes (plan séquence) and sedentary camera recording the mundane routines in their entirety. The visual style of the camerawork resembles Béla Tarr.
Alienation. There is a general sense of ennui, a feeling of solitude, a world of confusion. Each in their own peculiar way, the characters are left alone in the world, alienated from their family and friends. The darkness and hopelessness resembles Lav Diaz.
Wordlessness. Not necessarily silent nor speechy, the dialogues are merely natural conversations, laconic arguments. Actions are more powerful than words. Actions of the body in its context and the repercussions of its deployment. As few a word as Jia Zhangke.
The CCC trademarks underline HU Bo’s mise en scène, creating a recognizable genre of a placid crime story with the bullies and the victims. Nonetheless, he developed his idiosyncratic style, like no other CCC master before him, with his focus delimitation and his absence of counter shots.




Portrait of a city. Portrait of a world.

Manhzouli, border-city between Manchuria and Russia, where this funny circus has settled, is a goal-post destination, an Eldorado, an obsession for the four protagonists. Yet the Eldorado in China away from China is the obsession of the new independent Chinese cinema. And all the routes, of lonely individuals, lead to Manhzouli, eventually. Manhzouli is the ideal city, away from home, near the border in order to escape the Chinese empire.

Cheng : « The World is a wasteland. »

On the other hand the city they live in, nondescript city of the North-East, represents the harsh reality of Chinese way of life, away from the stereotypes of crazy rich capitalists in the capitals and the idealised countryside of pastoral fables. This concrete city is closer to the realist China of Wang Bing. Bu, Ling, and their friends attend the worst high-school in town, which is bound to shut down. Grey, dirty, rusty, smelly, dangerous, foggy paint for a world à la Dickens or Zola, egoistic, oppressive, unjust. We are recalling JiaZhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) or The World (2004).




Duration

It has become commonplace in Slow Cinema defense to say of a film over topping the mainstream average (90-120min) that it feels shorter or not as long. It is the case here. 230 min is physically twice longer than what a standard audience would tolerate, in spite of being less exhausting. Yet the slow pace feels in constant activity, even through the pedestrian journeys from point A to point B. The stories flow continuously without a laborious accumulation of useless information. Events are inflated to resemble real life span.
When you get the chance to spend 3h50 minutes with four characters, they become friends, they become real persons we know inside out. There is a new emotional regimen at work in the identification to the protagonists after a patient attention. Instead of the content of psychological dialogues, it’s the sympathetic time spend together that forges an enduring rapport with the taciturn heroes.
4 hours (or close to that) is an ambitious stretch of time for a debut film. Even the specialist like Lav Diaz (he’s made films lasting over 12h) started his career with a « normal » feature length. HU Bo did have an open conflict with his producers to keep the final cut on a full version, which he always had in mind before shooting.




Small times

The long take is the director’s stylistic choice, which tends to comply with the CCC canon. But detractors (or confused critics) often point out to the lack of obvious motivation for this choice. A futile editing job that eschews any decision to cut. « They don’t know when to cut ! », they say.
Sometimes the cut comes in a little later than the effective cut on action. Sometimes the cut drags a little bit after the action ends to let the spectator contemplate what has just been seen, and what will come next. The Hollywood edit doesn’t let you think about images that are successively bombarded into your passive retina.
HU Bo draws attention to the dead times, after and around actions. People’s displacements become, in full, integer part of the film. They inhabit their world measuring it at length by foot. Without a clear map of this unknown city, we nonetheless figure out exactly how far they live from one another, and how small is their society.
Bu is filmed intently in the hall at the bottom of his project building staircase. What is he doing ? He rubs the end of a matchstick against the derelict cement of the wall, where he spat on his saliva, to form a ball that will stick to the ceiling after he’s lit it on fire and thrown it in the air. The camera pans up and reveals a ceiling clustered with splashes of soot around the burnt matchsticks sticking down.


Contrechamp interdit (Forbidden counter shot)

No establishing shot, no cutaway, no deep focus, no shot-counter shot. HU Bo films uniquely with plan séquences sans counter shot. Thusly limiting the spectator’s perspective to the protagonist viewpoint in each shot, where the hero of the sequence is in a foreground close up (as seen previously). André Bazin, in his most famous piece « Montage interdit » (in « Qu’est-ce que le cinéma ? », 1958), declared the forbidden edit in certain cases where the action requires to show two characters / events in the same frame at the same time, to prove the simultaneity of actions. For example to show the predator and the prey in the same shot.
Paraphrasing Bazin, we could evoke a forbidden counter shot here, similarly related to the forbidden edit for ethical reasons. Here the shot (a plan séquence) has only one side to it, one version of truth, one bias, one point of view.


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