I’ve been dabbling in Chinese cinema recently, with mixed results. I swung and missed with the Flowers of War, ostensibly about the Rape of Nanking, a topic that I’ve read about extensively, but it turned out to be a variation on the hookers-with-a-heart-of-gold film mashed up with an American action picture (though the lone Chinese soldier’s Rambo-like last stand against the Japanese invaders was pretty damned satisfying given the evil the Japanese were perpetrating throughout the collapsing city).
Then I came across “An Elephant Sitting Still,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Hands down. I hesitated on pulling the trigger when I saw it runs nearly four hours. I’m so glad I holstered my A.D.D. and dove in.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, most of the action happens off camera. We’re left to see the close-up reactions — or often lack thereof — of the main characters. There’s a sense of hopelessness throughout the film — alienation, petty violence, ennui, and a web of lies, that would make Trump proud. Sadly, Hu Bo, the director and screenwriter, committed suicide shortly after finishing the film, a fact that hearkens to John Kennedy Toole and his New Orleans picaresque “A Confederacy of Dunes.”
The acting is subdued but powerful. I particularly liked Peng Yuchang as Wei Bu and Wang Yuwen as Huang Ling. And the final scene was transcendent. The camera, which often was close, intimate, even encroaching, becomes distant, but a transcendent moment occurs as the characters exit the bus on their way to a circus in Manzhouli, where there is supposed to be a circus elephant that can be abused and beaten but remains still.
E.M. Forster, when grappling with our solipsism, scaled back his expectations, I think, in urging that we “only connect.” It seems an admission that we can never really know another person, cut through the web of small deceits and lies and charades designed to hide what lives deep inside. But just making a connection, any connection, can be an end in itself.