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‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a Metaphor for the Overwhelming Sense of Despair and Ultimate Catharsis

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a Metaphor for the Overwhelming Sense of Despair and Ultimate Catharsis

  • Director Hu Bo's legacy lives on through his art. It serves as a reminder of the power of cinema to illuminate the world in which we live.

Bo Hu’s Chinese film, “An Elephant Sitting Still,” takes us through the urban landscape of China, where the lives of four complex characters intertwine over the course of a single day. Wei Bu, a young man whose parents ridicule him, experiences a life-altering event when he gets into an unexpected altercation with a school bully. Meanwhile, Huang Ling, Wei Bu’s classmate and adolescent crush, finds herself embroiled in a complicated relationship with her vice principal, which spirals out of control when their private videos get leaked. Yu Cheng, a local gangster, loses everything after getting involved with his best friend’s girlfriend. And Wang Jin, an elderly parent, considered by his son to be a liability, facing pressure to leave his own home.

Throughout Hu Bo’s film, I was immersed in the overwhelming sense of despair and haunting bleakness that permeated it. The scores elicit a blend of gloomy and optimistic feelings, contributing an additional depth to this exceptional slow cinema. Even though the response of the characters may not feel outwardly loud or dramatic, their strong mental state was still conveyed through subtle body language and cold conversations. It is essential to not confuse them with passivity, nihilism or defeatism. This must be understood to appreciate the film’s message. It invests in grey areas, teaching us that human beings are complex.

“An Elephant Sitting Still” has a vast canvas, dealing with universal concepts of suffering and the human response to it. People in many parts of the world can easily identify with elements such as the dark aspects of industrial society, including suicide, bullying and dysfunctional families. The film is a crystal ball showing the future of this world: people doing whatever they can to break vicious cycles, hanging on to the tiniest hope.

The film’s artistry and aesthetic are outstanding. The slow movements of the camera allow the audience to see not only the characters in great detail but also capture the grimy environment they are trapped in. The bleak silences are also part of the film’s aesthetic, and not once does an actor break character under the unblinking gaze of the camera. We become part of their world and the audience can feel the psychological horrors the characters are going through.

The elephant’s ability to withstand harm is a symbol of resilience and endurance.

It is impossible to escape the distressing reality of a society filled with violence, people who lack empathy, and an ever-present danger that looms around every corner. It’s a reality that confronts the characters of the movie at every turn, regardless of whether they are at their homes, at their educational institutions that are supposed to nurture them, or the streets that they traverse every day.

The constant exposure to such a harsh and unforgiving environment can be demoralizing. It can make us desensitized to the pain and suffering of others. It can rob anyone of their ability to hope for a better future.

The movie starts with the following dialogue:

Yu Cheng: “He told me the other day. There is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long. Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. I don’t know.”

This is the most important metaphor in the movie. The elephant’s ability to withstand harm is a symbol of resilience and endurance. The characters in the film are struggling to find a way out of their difficult situations, and the image of the elephant sitting still actually shows some similarities with the main characters. The idea that the elephant is being stabbed with forks may suggest that the characters are constantly being poked and prodded by the difficulties of their lives, and yet they continue to persevere and carry on.

At the movie’s finale, Manzhouli is reached by three of the four main characters. We can’t see the elephant, but we can hear it’s trumpet from a distance. It means the elephant moved from his place. The characters too, dared to escape cyclical suffering and found each other.

Even if you can’t understand the complex circumstances and irrationality of events, you need to find a way to live. You must unearth some means even if it’s just a faint flicker of hope in the bleakness of this world devoid of trust, sympathy and fellow feeling. Discovering these in a small community of strangers can change, and perhaps, save lives.

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This conversation takes place at the end of the movie:

Yu Cheng: If you’re standing on a tall building’s balcony, what would come to your mind?

Wei Bu: I would think about what else I can do.

We see Wei Bu refusing to give in to hopelessness, trying his hardest to bear an unbearable life. On the other hand, Yu Cheng’s story is particularly poignant as he is unable to escape his circumstances and find a sense of purpose or meaning in his life. His experience is ultimately cathartic. Despite his failure to reach Manzhouli, he gains valuable insights and experiences along the way that help him come to terms with his suffering.

Hu Bo’s legacy lives on through his art. It serves as a reminder of the power of cinema to illuminate the world in which we live. We owe it to him to carry on his vision. We must strive to cultivate compassion and empathy towards one another, to create a world where kindness reigns and hope prevails.

Lokesh Bag is a passionate writer, a movie critic, a relentless reader and a sketch artist. He has a graduate degree in Agricultural Entomology. He is an Ambedkarite and has been creating meaningful conversations about caste, gender, and social issues. He has previously been published in The Quint and he often writes on various topics in tweet-chunks on Twitter for his fans. He believes in working towards a better tomorrow, one word at a time. Follow him on Twitter.

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