Chinese director Hu Bo’s first and last film is an impressive achievement
Dir/scr: Hu Bo. China. 2018. 230mins
As a chronicle of life’s everyday horrors beating down upon four residents of a northern Chinese town, An Elephant Sitting Still couldn’t be more emotionally desolate. Indeed, with the film’s bleakness baked into every grey-hued frame, it’s impossible to divorce Hu Bo’s nonetheless accomplished and involving debut from the writer, director and editor’s own plight: in October 2017, the author-turned-filmmaker committed suicide.
Hu paints a picture of existential malaise with such a fine-tuned control of mood, imagery and pacing that the end result resembles a marriage of Jia Zhangke and Bela Tarr.
His tragic passing is cinema’s considerable loss. Certain to tour the international circuit after its Berlinale premiere and Hong Kong berth, An Elephant Sitting Still deserves attention based on its merits. Unrelenting as its tone may be, the feature proves a delicately layered, deftly shot work that makes an incisive statement about the prevalence of apathy, arrogance and egotism in contemporary China and beyond.
Based on and sharing its title with a story from the filmmaker’s 2017 novel Huge Crack, the film starts with the recounting of a myth that explains the naming. In the city of Manzhouli, according to the tale, an elephant sits motionless in a zoo and simply ignores everything around it. Both a damning comment on the best way to survive in increasingly demanding times and a zen ideal to strive for, it resonates among An Elephant Sitting Still’s main players, all deeply unhappy in their industrial locale.
High-schooler Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) attempts to defend a classmate from a schoolyard bully but ends up accidentally pushing him down the stairs. Meanwhile, his tormentor’s small-time thug brother Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) is driven to retaliate out of duty more than desire. Back in the schoolyard, Wei Bu’s object of affection, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), has her own scandal via an affair with the married vice dean that’s been splashed across social media. That just leaves the elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), who is despairing at the prospect of being placed in a nursing home.
Just as sunshine can’t penetrate cinematographer Fan Chao’s naturalistically grim visuals, there’s no chance of a sunny outlook among Hu’s protagonists. And just as the film’s long takes and roving tracking shots are in no hurry, neither is the characters’ communal onslaught of a day. The gloom and misery never outstays its welcome, however. Hu paints a picture of existential malaise with such a fine-tuned control of mood, imagery and pacing that the end result resembles a marriage of Jia Zhangke and Bela Tarr.
Production company: Dongchun Films Co., Ltd
International sales: Rediance, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Liu Xuan
Screenplay: Hu Bo, based on the story of the same name from his novel Huge Crack
Production design: Xie Lija
Editing: Hu Bo
Cinematography: Fan Chao
Music: Hua Lun
Cast: Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi