I was not at all prepared for this film!
I was aware of the running time being just shy of 4 hours, I was aware of the awards it won in its native country of China, and I was aware of the tragedy that surrounded the production. What I was not aware of was how profoundly depressing, moving and thought-provoking these 230 minutes would be.
Whilst we should always endeavour to be objective when it comes to cinema, it is extremely difficult to separate the artist from the art when it comes to AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL.
After filming finished in October of last year, writer/director/editor Hu Bo took his own life at the age of 29. It is a desperately sad end to a life which showed so much talent and promise, but because of his early death it forced me to watch his first, and now last, feature from a different perspective. Whilst all films are personal to the filmmaker in some way or another, this feels particularly true here where the pain and anguish of living seeps through every bleak and sorrowful moment on screen.
The film tells the story of one single suspenseful day, linking together the lives of a number of hopeless characters and along the way painting a portrait of a society marked by selfishness. In the northern Chinese city of Manzhouli, they say there is an elephant that simply sits and ignores the world. Manzhouli becomes an obsession for the protagonists of this film, a longed-for escape from the downward spiral in which they find themselves. Among them is schoolboy Bu, on the run after pushing local bully Shuai down the stairs. Bu’s classmate Ling has run away from her alcoholic mother and fallen for the charms of her teacher. Shuai’s older brother Cheng feels responsible for the suicide of a friend. And finally, along with many other characters whose fates are inextricably bound together, there’s Mr. Wang, a sprightly pensioner whose son wants to offload him into a retirement home.
This is a hard and punishing watch in so many ways. Whilst I believe at its heart this film is a plea for more kindness and humanity in the world, not a single spark of hope ever really comes up. This is everyday life at its worst! No matter if you’re at home, at school, or on the street, all we see is poverty, violence, toxicity and constant danger. There seems to be no safe place to go and everything in this world seems designed to eat at you and push you away. The film’s duration seems purposefully intimidating as well. We see this world through impressively long takes where the camera floats around our main subjects and lingers long before and after the supposed action takes place. A lot of the action actually happens in the background or off-camera, with the lens entirely focused in a closeup on the protagonist through the scenes. It is an ingenious way to interpret the psychological volatility of these souls and it helps the audience develop an intimacy with them as we spend longer and longer with them in such close proximity. It is certainly a style of filmmaking that seems awkward at first but becomes more and more powerful as it sinks in.
Whilst I am well aware I am making the experience of watching this film sound traumatic, I must also add how incredible and important this experience was for me as well. The nihilist in me saw Hu Bo’s vision of chaos and senselessness as painfully real but the optimist in me believes there are reasons for everything and strength really does come from within. Two conflicting ideas that struggle inside me every day and not many films make me confront these feelings so directly but this incredible piece of cinema made me ponder life in a very different way and I think at the end of the day all we can hope for is connection. A connection with people who have the same goal, even if that goal is to travel to see an elephant that simply sits and ignores the world.
Hu Bo definitely left us too soon, but he left us one hell of a powerful film that showcased his tremendous talent and compassion. AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL is a confident and deeply personal debut the likes of which I have never seen before and whilst I am sure some people will not have the patience for its length or its depth, it will be a film I will always remember and a legacy for the late Hu Bo that will live on forever.
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