On the evening of February 17, I screened a 2018 Chinese film, An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐) in the annex of Ertegun House. This is a film that I enjoyed in the cinema of the Barbican a year ago, and recently I decided to write a chapter on it in my DPhil thesis. Shortly after that, Qingyi mentioned to me her interest in this film and I came up with the idea of screening it in the House for the Ertegun Scholars.
This is a long but artful and intriguing film. In the film, the protagonists from a small northern county hear that in Manzhouli, a city in the very north of China, there is an elephant sitting still all day. People try to irritate it, but it simply sits and ignores the world. The protagonists, not doing well in different aspects of their own lives, and not being cared for by others, are fascinated by the idea of travelling to Manzhouli to see this elephant and to escape their messy life in Jingxing. This 234-minute film shows what happens in one single day, from dawn to dusk, and ends with the protagonists meeting on a coach to Manzhouli.
The screening was a pleasant experience. Although we didn’t manage to go through the whole film in the end, as the film is exceptionally long, we managed to watch the first three hours, and we had delicious Franco Manca pizzas with it. This screening is especially valuable to me, because after watching the film again and discussing it with other scholars, I gained a clearer idea for my upcoming thesis chapter: I decided to investigate the issue of cynicism in art, tracing it back to the value of the critical potential of poetry in Chinese literary tradition, as well as the principle of not being overly cynical. In my chapter I will explore how the director Hu Bo (胡波) managed to restrain the critical aspect of this film, when the over-use of cynicism in contemporary Chinese film-making seems to be a common practice.