An Elephant Sitting Still – Hu Bo (2018)

There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.

There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.

We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?

The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.

Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.

There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.

Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”

Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.

Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.

Le vrai film est ailleurs – Mark John Ostrowski (2018)

A curious title, a provocative message from director John Mark Ostrowski, whose work I came across for the first time during my work on tao films VoD, where we show his previous film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes. The real film is elsewhere, somewhere else, not here, not now. But where?

A female voice introduces the film. She speaks in broken French, seemingly still learning the language. The voice over, animating the black screen, allows for an almost magical journey. Where will this film go? Speaking in metaphors, the woman uses a poetic language to lure us in. She speaks about love, about the sea, her words inviting us to float with her words, which we use to look for meaning; the meaning of her words, the meaning of the film’s title, the meaning of the woman’s memories. 

Music sets in. The black screen gives way to a close-up shot of water. Waves push and pull a large flag, entangling it in a swirl of different currents that make it no more than a toy. It’s defenceless, vulnerable to the surrounding forces. Ostrowski cuts the sound of the water, deafening us, disorienting us, but also guiding us with dramatic, yet minimalist music. A foreshadowing of something elsewhere, something to come, or something that has already been. The flag – an important metaphor in the first part of the film, a symbol of belonging, of identification.

We get to know Sofia, the woman whose voice has led us into the film, and Javier, an elderly man, who suffers from a bad cough, who looks poor, but whose words radiate with power. Javier is a philosopher. He carries around a flag that he found in his grandparents’ house. He assumes that his grandparents attached great meaning to this flag, so he kept it. But “My flag, my own flag, I don’t know what it is,” he says. Instead he tells Sofia that everything is the same everywhere, yet one always makes one’s own out of what one loves. The almost intimate, very open conversations between Sofia and Javier are special. They add a counterpoint to the film’s long takes, bring substance to them. “We all come from the same womb. I don’t consider myself white, or black, or yellow. I consider myself human,” Javier says.

Ostrowski surprises when he introduces a third character, Pablo, Javier’s son. Sofia has a lightness to herself that contradicts the seeming heaviness of Javier. The Fisherman’s Guild, where they stay, makes him heavy, makes him suffer. “I can’t breathe. It’s a struggle.” He’s slowly dying, slowly wasting away. His own place, that where he is from, causes pain. It wants him to leave. There is a palpable gentleness between Sofia and Javier, an intimate relationship based on mutual (non-sexual) love. The role of the human soul plays an important role here. Ostrowski is showing soul mates, two people who speak the same universal language.

After Pablo’s unexplained disappearance, the film takes a more sombre tone. The lightness, the philosophy – everything has lost its meaning. Instead, Ostrowski’s film turns into a haunting ghost that weighs heavy on the two characters. There is an attempt at continuing, but one can feel, as a viewer, that something has changed. The film isn’t the same. It is mourning Pablo. It is mourning Sofia. It is mourning Javier. At one point, there is hope. Sofia notes that Pablo had been seen playing the guitar in the streets. We will never know. What we witness instead is the cut of the gentle ties between Sofia and Javier, a birthday present for the latter, heartfelt, but also a farewell gift that bares too heavy on the man who struggles breathing in this damp surrounding in the Fisherman’s Guild. Metaphorically, literally.

What remains in the end are traces; traces of an incredible lightness, of thought-provoking conversations, of two characters that have shared a bond. What remains are the traces of a film. Elsewhere. 

The Ditch – Wang Bing (2010)

Wang Bing’s films have been high on my watch list for quite some time. West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary, is still waiting for me. But DVDs can be exceptionally patient, more so than humans! I finally got round seeing The Ditch (2010) after a recommendation by Michael Guarneri, who thought that the film’s content chimed well with my work on Lav Diaz. And it sure does, and yet it’s so very different.

If you’re looking for a nicely photographed film, then The Ditch is not for you. It’s a simple film. The style is pretty rudimentary at times. I’m not saying that Wang Bing has chosen to make the film look amateurish on purpose. Nor am I saying that he cannot do any better. For some reason, regardless of the director’s reason and background, the style fits well to the content. Set in 1960, The Ditch tells the story of inmates of Jiabiangou, a “prisoner correction camp”, or simply a labour camp, in the Gobi Desert. The film was shot without official permission on the actual location. So that gives you an idea of how far Wang Bing is willing to go in order to tell repressed histories of his country. It also explains the rudimentary aesthetics.

Wang Bing is best known for his documentaries, and if you didn’t know that The Ditch is supposed to be a feature film, you could be fooled. I found the aesthetics very documentary like. I had the feeling that Wang Bing was present at something that was, in reality, unfolding in front of him. It may have been the handheld camera. It also felt as though the characters didn’t mind the camera. They just “lived” their roles, so I felt torn between what The Ditch really was; documentary or fiction. I knew that it couldn’t be a straightforward documentary, and yet the aesthetics reminded me of it.

The film is a strong image of suffering and slow death, exactly what you find in Diaz’s films. But it’s portrayed more head-on, down-to-earth without any intention to create something special. This would have turned the suffering into spectacle. By remaining at a distance, Wang Bing counters this risk.

I do feel as though The Ditch should have been longer and I’m not saying this because I like long films. In order to get to the bottom of such a subject and the psychology of the characters you need to spend more than 90 minutes with them. I’m aware of the restrictions the secret production brought with it. Nevertheless, an hour more would have been sufficient to add more power to the film.

The prisoners suffer from cold and hunger. One inmate is seen eating the vomit of another. Another is killing and cooking a rat, for which he is later punished. We also learn in conversations between characters that inmates cut flesh off dead inmates out of sheer desperation over their hunger. The characters’ psychology isn’t as visible as it is in Diaz’s films, which use their duration in order to demonstrate the power of the concentrationary system, i.e. terror, degradation, reducing the inmates to bare life, aiming for psychological disintegration.

And because all of this needs time (the main component of the concentrationary), the film is too short for its in-depth portrayal of the subject. It’s good but too short. Some shots are beautiful and give you a sense of the vastness of the Gobi Desert. There’s no escape possible for the inmates. There’s nothing but emptiness surrounding them. There’s no hope. Even if you tried to escape, it’ll likely mean death. Nevertheless, I would like to see The Ditch as part of a bigger project, a project that positions time/duration more in the centre because it is essential for this subject.

I believe that The Ditch needs a second viewing. I became extremely irritated by the arrival of a female character, who shattered my sensation of seeing something unfolding in real time. She’s the wife of an inmate who had died 8 days earlier and I don’t understand Wang Bing’s decision to include her. His film was extremely focused, to the point, and powerful. The woman was terribly artificial in her acting. She was over the top and got on my nerves. I found her unrealistic. Coming from the city, carrying a handbag – that’s fine. But carrying the handbag around in the desert while looking in despair for her husband? Taking shovel and handbag? And while the men are all wrapped up and freeze, she can stay a night without blankets and is perfectly fine.

It all felt like stupid mistakes as seen in Hollywood films; completely over the top, nonsensical things. With her arrival, I became impatient with the film, which until then had been great. The female character was not necessary and took away screen time for the actual portrayal of suffering. This may be the reason why I thought that the film was too short.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to more Wang Bing films. I was my first, and certainly not my last!

Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007)

I believe that I keep mentioning this film, but I have never really made a proper (blog) case out of it. So let’s go into a bit more detail about Lav Diaz’s painful trip through the Land of Encantos.

Encantos is a docu-fiction hybrid, akin to the works of Nicolás Pereda, a Mexican slow-film director, who plays with our expectations of fact and fiction. Diaz’s film was, in fact, originally a documentary. It is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming, which hit the country in autumn 2006, only a month or two after volcano Mayon erupted. The strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc in the cities surrounding the volcano, such as Legazpi City. The rain water mixed with the volcano ashes that have remained after the eruption, and produced a deadly lahar that swept through villages and cities. Over a thousand people died, many of them were buried alive.

Diaz ventured out to record footage of the aftermath. He also conducted interviews with survivors, which you see in the final film. You even hear him in the background asking questions. When he saw the footage on his computer, he decided to construct a fictional narrative around the disaster that befell the region. The final product is a film that uses the devastated landscape in order to mirror a devastated character; Benjamin, or Hamin, “the great poet” as he is called by his friends Teo and Catalina. He returned to the Philippines, supposedly to look for the body of his former lover Amalia. This is only a small piece of Hamin’s complex struggle against losing his sanity, though.

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Hamin lived in Russia for seven years. In Kaluga, to be exact. He received a grant and residency for teaching. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this or not. There are things that let me doubt his version of leaving the Philippines. Perhaps the most subtle pointer towards it is the fact that Kaluga used to be a place for exiled politicians during the period of the Russian Empire. It also used to be a place for prisoners. Put this into the context of Hamin being a persecuted artists for inciting a revolution, and you start to re-think his story of grants, residencies, and teaching.

Hamin is a broken man. Just as “broken” and devastated as the landscape that surrounds him. The framing and the camera angles support his mental decline. The frames are generally empty. It’s like what the mayor of Legazpi City said after the disaster: “We now call this a black desert”. Desert means death, and this is what you see in every frame. Houses are buried in lahar up to the rooftop. They have become coffins for their owners. The trees are bare. New rivers have formed as the water from the sea has swallowed substantial amounts of landmass. The camera is hardly set straight. It’s more tilted than anything else; an element that emphasises the idea of an upset equilibrium, both in nature and in Hamin’s mind.

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The poet was deemed too dangerous for Philippine society. He was arrested, and tortured so as to break his spirit. His hand was crushed, his penis electrocuted, he was sexually abused, and – intriguingly – he had what he called acid injected into his brain (as I found out a fairly common strategy used by the CIA in the past). On top of this, guilt is crushing him. He never visited his mother, who was in a mental institution because of uncontrollable schizophrenia-paranoia. His sister committed suicide by jumping of a building. His father died of loneliness. It is a demonstration of what Catalina says later in the film: artists are selfish. They only care about their art but they care little about the people around them.

The film is, in fact, full of discourses around art and artists. It’s a discourse on colonialism and the influences of Western culture on Philippine society. It’s a discourse on political activism and the still very present threats of kidnapping, torture, and killing. Compared to Florentina Hubaldo, there are several different layers of discourse. I mean actual dialogue, rather than mere images. Encantos is rich, and it tackles so many issues of what Diaz calls the “Philippine struggle” that the nine-hour run time is more than justified. It could even be a tick longer.

The images are strong. Every single frame has its particular strength. The expression of Hamin’s struggle is visible in every frame, and if we only see an empty bit of devastated landscape. This landscape is Hamin. But on top of the visuals, the dialogues are heavy. Very philosophical. Very thought-provoking. This combination creates a piece which weighs heavy on the viewer. An intellectual piece which requires thinking and commitment. Only with thinking and commitment you get to the bottom of it (and you may actually want to watch the film more than once – ha, commitment!).