Last week at the Philadelphia Film Festival, I sat through a four–hour movie. At the Ritz Five movie theater starting at dusk, I plopped down in my seat, constantly shifting around and losing focus. After dozing off within the first hour of the movie, there was a point when I wanted to exit the theater. I thought I knew exactly where the movie was going, and in my mind, I had thought up the perfect movie review headline: “An Elephant Sitting Still is Proof that Movies Should Be No Longer than Two and a Half Hours.” By midnight, my view couldn’t have changed more dramatically.
As a lover of movie theaters, all I desired last Saturday night was to be in a movie theater—the movie I watched didn’t matter. So, I went into An Elephant Sitting Still without a hint of what it’d be about. Just by the title, I was expecting something lighthearted. I’m a big fan of elephants and sitting, and I thought the movie might be under the genre of comedy, adventure, or romance. Maybe it would be about a circus ringmaster who’s unable to get his stubborn elephant to perform stunts, or maybe it’d be about a zookeeper, who specializes in caring for elephants, falling in love with another elephant–adoring zookeeper. Then, my friend told me that the director, Bo Hu, died by suicide after finishing the movie, his first and last feature film. Immediately shattered in disbelief, I prepared myself for emotional toil.
Set in Northern China and over the course of a single day, the movie follows four characters, each dealing with their own set of personal issues. Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is a schoolboy on the run after accidentally pushing a bully down a flight of stairs. Fellow classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is having an affair with the school’s vice dean and has a tumultuous relationship with her mother. The elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) is helpless as his family threatens to put him in a nursing home. Lastly, gang leader Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) struggles to come to terms with his friend’s suicide, which he caused. The characters grapple with their issues separately, but eventually cross paths as they are united by an unwavering pursuit to travel to Manzhouli, where an elephant does nothing but sits still.
With a bleak, grey color scheme, the movie features ethereal close–ups and wide shots that make the dilapidated environment appear almost alluring. The actors are immersed in their craft, giving their characters great authenticity. Still, the splendid acting and beautiful cinematography didn’t maintain my attention as the plot moved without much action for the first hour. Desiring something faster–paced, I became tireless, and I even left the theater to use the restroom—an act that goes against my movie–watching ritual. However, the much–needed break instigated a turning point in my viewing experience. I became completely engrossed, and when the trumpeting sounds of elephants marked the end of the movie, I desperately wanted to see more. I didn’t want to just hear the elephant; I wanted to see it, and the movie ended without letting me do so. Like the characters, I had developed this odd yearning, and it seemed like my life depended on seeing the magnificent elephant.
Perhaps it might be because I see myself in each character. As a Chinese American, the fact that this movie was produced in China made me relate to the characters on another level that wouldn’t have been possible if the movie were an American or European production. Like Wei Bu, I am sometimes fearful, yet so impassioned with anger that I just want to scream at the top of my lungs. Like Huang Ling, I have been extremely self–centered in earlier years, and through the most hateful shouting bouts, I’ve spoken awful words to my mom. Like Wang Jin, I sometimes feel unwanted and useless. Like Yu Cheng, I can put up a tough front and then experience mental pain in private. Like all the characters, I’ve felt lost with no sense of direction, with my one last hope remaining in a ridiculous fantasy—even if that fantasy is to see an elephant.
Yet, these feelings only fully hit me when I got back to my room. On the bus ride back, the only scene I was thinking about was the one trace of humor in the movie: “I’ll cover you.” “He said he’ll cover you.” This simple exchange caused the theater to cry in an uproar of laughter. Even in the direst of situations, humor finds its way into our lives, and Bo Hu knew the perfect way to incorporate such humor. After the last scene, a candid photograph of him, smiling with what looked like genuine joy, flashed on the screen.
Little did I know, this movie that I impulsively agreed to watch with my friend would have such a profound impact on me. The day after watching the movie, in the midst of studying for a midterm, a wave of thoughts concerning the movie struck me. Before I knew it, tears streamed down my face. It’s unimaginable that a man who appeared to be able to see the dim light in the darkest situations, or at least in his directorial work, lived in a hopeless state of depression. I wanted to see future works of his. I wanted to see where the An Elephant Sitting Still characters would end up. But that was all impossible.
After rewatching the little clips of the movie that I could find on YouTube, I found a full version of the online and listened to it on repeat for an entire hour. If anyone had seen me, they’d probably think I was heartbroken after breaking up with someone I love. And, as someone who’s never even had a serious crush on anyone, I imagine the feelings I have about the movie would be as intense as those I’d have after a break–up. Even now, when listening to the song, I can’t help but tear up a little bit.
Dying by suicide shortly after finishing the film, An Elephant Sitting Still can be seen as Bo Hu’s last message to the public. Some might think it’s a suicide note—he does say in the film that “life is a wasteland.” However, I’d like to be optimistic and interpret his message as hopeful: we should all breed empathy, act with compassion, and know that it’s okay to work through the motions of life even after sitting still for so long.