“There is simply no ideal life. It is only about choosing what kind of regrets you are willing to live with.” – Hu Bo
Chinese novelist and filmmaker Hu Bo is better known in the world of cinema for the only feature film he ever made during his lifetime: An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). It is a four-hour epic which investigates the existential despair of humanity set against the bleak landscape of Northern China, focusing on the intersecting lives of four people who try to navigate the suffocating labyrinth of their philosophical convictions. Hu Bo’s magnum opus received several awards and nominations and it was probably one of the best films of 2018 but it is remembered for a much more tragic reason. The Chinese auteur killed himself in October of 2017, just after he finished working on the film. An Elephant Sitting Still is now seen as Hu Bo’s poignant farewell to the world, his cinematic suicide note.
Hu Bo’s 2016 short film is far lesser in scope and vision but it is an important work in his filmography because it contains vital pre-cursors to the powerful artistic statements that he would deliver in An Elephant Sitting Still. Man in the Well presents a relatively simple story: two starving children trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where nothing remains except the ruins of crumbling buildings. The camera captures their claustrophobia as they sift through the undeniable legacy of violent forces that have destroyed the world. Supervised by the Hungarian master Béla Tarr, Man in the Well displays imagery that is very much in the tradition of Tarr. It is reminiscent of his own existential masterpieces like The Turin Horse (2011), bleak and beautiful in equal parts.
When informed of the fact that people often complained his works were too pessimistic, Hu Bo said, “You can ask whoever made these claims to reflect on himself for just a second every day when he wakes up, before he goes to bed, or when he fetches a cup of water at the water dispenser at work, and he will know he’s only looking at his life through rose-coloured glasses. All he’s doing is posting Tweets, living up to labels, or hoarding hundreds of pictures on his cell phone while waiting for a chance to flaunt them to others. I’m not disproving these behaviours. However, the truly valuable things lie in the cracks of the world, and not pessimistically so. If he can understand this, he may just be awed by the orders of life.”
Man in the Well reaches the apotheosis of its artistic vision in the final sequences. The two children discover a dead body that is restrained by metallic chains, cutting into it in order to sustain themselves. As they sit on a pile of filth, the camera shows their bloodstained faces. With vacant eyes, they stare into nothingness as the world around them continues to spiral out of existence. In an environment where death has become the omnipresent truth, these children subvert the totality of our biological limitation by feeding on it like maggots. Hu Bo shows us the logical conclusion of our hyper-consumerist drives, claiming that there will come a time when there will be nothing left to consume except each other.
Watch the short film, below.