An Elephant Sitting Still: The hope that lies in a “hopeless” farewell
In October of 2017, Hu Bo finished working on his first feature film, An Elephant Sitting Still. Shortly after, the author and director (the film was in fact an adaptation of a story he had written) killed himself, adding greater context to the nearly 4 hour long melodrama that many are inclined to refer to as a miserable, cynical, hopeless suicide note, a final message full of anger and sadness and overwhelming hate for the world he left behind. This reductive simplification, however, is unfair to the film, as well as to Hu Bo and the complexities he attempted to bring to the screen.
In the case of An Elephant Sitting Still, it feels nearly impossible to separate the film from the tragic event that followed its production. But what must be understood is that the film is not meant to be an argument against living. In fact, I see it as quite the opposite. If we were to assume that the film is intrinsically tied to Hu Bo’s death, the message I would derive isn’t a justification or explanation for his imminent suicide, instead it feels like a pained cry for help. Help that never came. Hu Bo might as well be saying “it’s too late for me” through the film. But is it hopeless nihilism? Of course not. Because with that parting message, he is leaving behind hope for anyone who will listen.
An Elephant Sitting Still opens with a story that seems to exist in a realm of magic-realism, almost a legend. This legend is essentially that there exists an elephant who sits and ignores the world. People try to feed it, or they poke it with forks, and it continues to sit there. It has learned to not care about outside influences, whether good or bad. It exists only for itself. From that point, the film primarily follows four people with very different lives, but they all face seemingly insurmountable challenges and are coming to a breaking point. One character, a gang member, sleeps with a friend’s girlfriend and then watches that friend commit suicide in response. Another character inadvertently kills a bully at his school and is on the run, and the aforementioned gang member happens to be this bully’s older brother. Another is being forced out of his home and into elderly care. And the last is in questionable contact with a teacher while having a strained relationship with her mother.
In the four hour runtime of the film, these paths rarely intersect. Each character has his or her own vast set of problems to grapple with, so it almost seems absurd for them to come into contact with each other. It’s an odd kind of paradox: As the audience, we see the lives of four people intercut throughout the film, each living in their own lonely bubbles, repelling the others at every potential moment of contact. These characters may just glide past each other, but they are all unbearably alone. Are they self-absorbed? Is it universally understood that their own problems are enough to worry about at once? When you live in a hopeless world, it seems asinine to try to help people who are in situations similar to your own. The lack of connection can be frustrating to people who want the satisfaction of characters functioning in a way ideal to the narrative.
When the characters eventually all come together, it’s because they all have the same confounding goal. They all want to see the fabled elephant that ignores the world. They want the knowledge and hope that can come from confirming the existence of this elephant. They haven’t resolved all of their problems by the time the film concludes, but there’s a degree of giving in to nature that rises in these final sequences. The gang member character realizes that he doesn’t actually want to be a gang member, and he lets the person who killed his little brother off the hook. The elderly man’s dog died, and part of his resistance to being placed in an assisted living home is the fact that he wouldn’t be able to bring his dog with. The girl with inappropriate relations with her teacher has her secret come out, destroying things around her in a way that’s impossible to fix. These are things that could certainly make this group want to give up completely. But they don’t. Is this because they just don’t care anymore, and might as well follow through with their plans? Somehow, hope rises from this lingering desperation. The characters are grasping at nothing more than a simple tale that’s been passed around tale and is of questionable authenticity — but that’s enough to convince them to move forward.
I believe it important to clarify that one must never assume that a piece of art is a full depiction of the artist’s mind. It might serve as a hazy window at best, a window that shows only a small portion of the whole. As humans, our emotions influence every piece of art we create, but only in small injections. Even a 4 hour long film can’t be taken as a clear view of what Hu Bo was going through, and it is largely unfair to paint it as such. People who are searching the film for reasons the director killed himself will not find them. Not even the greatest psychologist would be able to do so without plenty of doubt.
That said, a truth that many critics tend to overlook when analyzing the film is that it contains a hefty amount of self-awareness. It’s a film that understands itself to be grey, bleak, cynical, but it is not devoid of hope. Hope breathes through the film in unexpected, subtle ways that shouldn’t be ignored purely because of the director’s suicide. The film may be fairly stagnant most of the way through — it is filled with long, slow shots of characters trudging through their lives, dramatic events take place but they are treated with such apathy that they don’t feel like diversions from the grey, mundane path of the film — but what really matters is where it ends up. And that conclusive point is one of unmistakable hope. My understanding is that the only reason someone would miss what is clearly interlaced with the finale is that it’s not the sort of hope that seems unrealistic and unattainable. It’s instead a simple, but earnest, message: “keep moving forward.” It doesn’t offer much of a reason to do so, but Hu Bo wants us to live, even if he couldn’t.
After one character, the elderly man, gives a speech about how nothing in life will change no matter where they go, another suggests that they check anyway. Just to make sure. It’s an optimistic note in a movie that otherwise wouldn’t likely be called optimistic. But in that moment, any perceived pessimism in the hours leading up to it starts to crumble and fracture. Is it that they can learn to live like the titular elephant? Simply sit there and let the abuses of life weigh on them?
“Life sucks, but might as well wait to see what happens next” is not exactly a crowd-pleasing sentiment. Nonetheless it’s a reason to keep moving forward despite everything. One can be an elephant. They can ignore the world and allow onlookers to mock and abuse them. But perhaps they don’t need to be, perhaps despite what the old man says, it’s not such a bad thing to be fueled by the expectation that, one day, things will change for the better, and they’ll feel it was worth the wait.