An Elephant Sitting Still is easily one of the best films of the 2010s and a patient but unrelentingly bleak portrait of contemporary life.
Hu Bo’s first and final feature film, An Elephant Sitting Still, is an absolute beast. At nearly four hours, its very presence feels towering and imposing. However, despite and because of its length, it reveals itself to be a deeply profound and personal study of human misery. Centered around four characters – Wei Bu and Huang Ling (played by Peng Yuchang and Wang Yu Wen, respectively) two high school students, Wang Jin (Li Congxi), a grandfather, and Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a gangster, An Elephant Sitting Still moves rhythmically through its story of hopelessness and human disconnection. Hu Bo (credited as writer, editor, and director) cuts between these four people as they live out a single day. Through its ensemble structure, Hu is able to keep the viewer engaged. Brutal bursts of violence are contrasted with long conversations between characters. Each one finds themselves connected to the others in striking ways, illuminating the theme of human connection the film tackles. And yet, they are also often seen walking alone, drenched in solitude.
Hu’s world is stark and desolate. Every one of his characters feels like they are searching for something. In fact, each one is enticed by an elephant in a city called Manzhouli. The elephant is said to sit still, completely apathetic to the world around it. If these people visit the elephant, will they find what they are searching for?
What makes An Elephant Sitting Still such a marvel is its capacity to tackle myriad themes. Hu is constantly looking for ways to develop his characters and explore his own preoccupations. For example, there are several scenes with explosions in the background. One could think they are fireworks, or they are the flash bombs and tear gas that police are using on student protestors. The film rumbles with an undercurrent of political protest, as Hu presents us with a vision of China out of step with the country’s own propaganda. The town the film takes place in is grey and destitute, brimming with selfishness and suffering, and the use of natural lighting greatly helps to establish this. The high school that Wei Bu and Huang Ling go to will soon be demolished. These people are being left behind, all in the name of progress.
But Hu does not stop there. Yu Cheng, stoic yet solemn, buries all his emotions deep down. He fails to recognize how he hurts those around him, how he deflects his own guilt onto women. He and Wei Bu are reflections of a diseased masculinity that bottles up every negative emotion only to release it in uncaring brutality. They cover up their self-hatred with a veneer of apathy.
While none of this may sound like very much fun, An Elephant Sitting Still is essential due to its empathetic exploration of some of the darkest sides of humanity. Cinematographer Fan Chao’s camerawork consists almost entirely of intimate close-ups and tracking shots that put the viewer directly next to the characters. We are right there, amidst the almost overwhelming display of human emotion (or lack thereof). The score by rock band Hua Lun also aids in accentuating the emotions of differing scenes. The minimalist combination of synths, subtle electric guitar, and piano is the perfect companion to Hu’s despairing images. Hua Lun also finds hope where Hu cannot, their music sometimes functioning as a counterbalance to Hu’s uncompromising anguish.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a revelation. A work of slow cinema that forges its own identity and understands the painful reality of human nature. As a reviewer of this film, I feel obligated to mention Hu Bo’s suicide before it was released. This fact hangs over the film and makes the pain inherent in it all the more immediate. Hu has left behind an astounding work, one that I hope will continue to resonate for decades into the future.
An Elephant Sitting Still is available to rent and buy.
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