Can a completely grueling experience be worth the effort, the investment of time and self? In the case of An Elephant Sitting Still, the first film by the young Chinese novelist Hu Bo, we’re talking about a four-hour story of such constant despair that not a single moment of joy or literal ray of sunlight pierces its desperate drama. But it is most definitely worth the ordeal. This bleak opus is not only the first but also the last film by Hu Bo, who killed himself at the age of 29 after its completion. This desire of some for release from life's onslaught of sorrow, ill-luck, bad decisions and a lack of compassion or even superficial pleasure can be felt in every single brutal minute of this sprawling film.
Initially, the despair is repulsive, not a glimpse but a full on plunge into the void. A gangster drives his friend to suicide and is consumed by regret; a student bullied both at home and high school accidentally hurts a classmate and flees; a female student is shamed for a relationship with her dean; and a grandfather is told that his family is putting him in a home. All have abusive families; the economy and opportunities of their city is shit; the world is brutally cynical—and the four, as their crises intersect, are resolutely morose. The hope of the title, an elephant in a circus in another town that all four hear about and become strangely entranced by, seems like a fantasy. These lives are very hard to take. But soon the film’s shroud—so effectively conveyed by long, uncut sequence shots following characters around as they search for a way out—envelops completely, and, within its bleak world, you can’t turn away. It would seem the ultimate act of cruelty for us to abandon these poor souls.
Another 4-hour lament for the suffering comes in Season of the Devil, Lav Diaz’s supremely powerful new film and clearly the token “hardcore” art-house movie in Berlin’s competition. But this reputation for difficulty—very long movies, long scenes done in long takes—is a misnomer: the challenge of Lav’s films aren’t their length, which can be relaxed into, or languor, which allows for both inattention and contemplation. The challenge they raise are for a Philippine history unrecorded and perhaps even unwritten in the official records. It is a challenge to the once-seen but now-unsaid—and to those in power. Season of the Devil states: “This happened, look at it, experience it—this is what has been missing from our past!” And perhaps, too, like Christian Petzold’s film in the Berlinale competition, Transit, it asks: “Do you recognize the present in this past?”
The history of Season of the Devil, in fact the whole story, all 4-hours of it, is possibly the most simple and direct Diaz has ever been: The year is 1979, the dictator is Marcos, and a citizen militia, the Integrated Civilian Home Defense Forces, has been raised to watch and repress far-flung rural populations. They come up with an ingenious plan to justify both their killings and their protection through martial law by re-introducing folkloric horror into the countryside, killer phantasms and creatures which are the terrorizers of the population—not, of course, the armed, brutally entitled and retaliatory militia itself. (The local militia is run by Lav Diaz regular actor and producer Hazel Oracio in a sly and powerful performance of state-sponsored evil.) Several figures emerge on the side of the people: A female doctor (Shaina Magdayao) who leaves her poet husband (Piolo Pascual) in the city to help treat those suffering in the countryside; a widow (Pinky Amador) in the countryside gone mad from grief after her husband and boy are killed; a resistant local leader (Bart Guingona); and the poet himself, beset by alcoholic despair and inactivity after his wife leaves.
The style, if one is not familiar, is bracing: A fixed camera from which space seems to open up vast before it to reveal the world as a living stage of history and the present moment intersecting. The actors perform in a very precise mode of populist amateurism that revels in being in part artificial and in part overwhelmingly affective. This resourceful kind of storytelling lets the evil citizen army appear sloppy and absurd while, with the same casting and directing style, showcasing the regular people as committed and utterly sincere. Thus one’s “belief” in the drama before us—which is patently non-psychological and more in the realm of fable-telling, myth-making, or historical re-interpretation—ebbs and flows, allowing for space (and time, of course) for reflection as much as for emotional immersion. Such emotion can be piercing: the bottomless sense of desperation, helplessness under the thumb of such violent governance brings out a extreme psychic pain.
And the ultimate catch is this: The story is all told to us in song—yes! Lav Diaz has made a musical: Nearly every word of dialog is sung acapella by his cast, who create a repetitive, incantatory tone through the pleading of the overwhelmingly emphatic music. The songs bombard us: They are long, insistent and frequently sorrowful. They are hypnotizing. Diaz gives them the time they need for the words and melodies to wrench the gut. Because this movie is indeed gut-wrenchingly sad. In the story, song—and the words within—seem the only power with which people can fight unjust power. Yet that power has the same tools at its disposal, so saying words—and, just as important for us in the audience, listening to words—becomes an act of, variously, oppression, mystification, anguish, a call to arms, and an expression and communing of consciousness. The songs are overwhelming, enveloping the world, with its wet jungles and bare villages, in a sense of the ubiquitous power of some and the complete powerlessness of the rest. I wanted so badly for the poet to regain his inspiration and to kill his rulers with a poem. In a film like this, such an act might be possible. By the end, the poet has a gun but I’m not sure he knows how to use it—or if it's the best weapon with which to fight.