An Elephant Sitting Still: Review

An Elephant Sitting Still: Review

An Elephant Sitting Still: Review. By Joe Muldoon.

‘The world is just disgusting’ – in only five words is the bleak philosophy of An Elephant Sitting Still encapsulated, an odyssic swan dive into the abyss. Set over the course of a single day, we loiter alongside our four main characters as they navigate punishingly tough lives against the oppressively drab backdrop of Shijiazhuang, a stagnant industrial city in Northern China, where little reprieve is granted from their own personal miseries.

Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang) is a local gang member who watches his friend throw himself from a window after Cheng is caught making advances on his girlfriend; Wei Bu (Yuchang Peng) is a schoolboy who resents his father and accidentally pushes a bully down a staircase; Huang Ling (Uvin Wang) is a teen who has a strained relationship with her mother and is filmed meeting her school’s vice dean at a hotel room; Wang Jin (Zi Xi) is an ageing man whose son-in-law urges him to leave their apartment for a nursing home and whose dog is killed by a local missing dog.



Though each character contends with their own personal plight, all are united by a single wish: to leave Shijiazhuang for Manzhouli, to see a mysterious famed circus elephant who sits still and refuses to interact with the world. As their bleak stories gradually unfold, their reasons for seeking an escape become ever clearer. Scarcely a single interaction passes without interpersonal strains and disdains bubbling away at the surface; the people in whom our co-leads should find comfort instead meet them with coldness and irritability.

When called into the school office to inform him of the underperforming school’s impending demolition, Wei asks the Vice Dean what will happen to the students without a school to attend. His concerns are met with indifference –almost amusement– as the Vice Dean shrugs it off, fatalistically remarking that most students will simply end up as street vendors. Upon leaving the office, the teen’s friend says how moved he is by a quote he recently read: ‘The world is a wasteland’. Watching their lives slowly unfurl, it is not hard to see why.

Huang is the recipient of arguably the most painful words, both from the Vice Dean and her own mother. As they eat at a restaurant, the Vice Dean shares his darkly antinatalist worldview: ‘Life just won’t get better. It’s all about agony. The agony has begun since you were born’. During an especially bitter argument, Huang cries out to her unmoved mother that her life is miserable, and she responds, ‘But it’s not because of me. It’s always been like this.’

The entire script is laden with uncompromising antinatalist and pessimist philosophies befitting the likes of Emil Cioran and Philipp Mainländer. In The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran wrote that ‘a book is a postponed suicide’, and it feels as though every decision each character makes is exactly this, whether metaphorical or not. Perhaps our protagonists’ voyage to Manzhouli is a hopeful attempt to break free of this trajectory, a last-ditch effort to unburden themselves of the chains of their strife. Or perhaps they are simply delaying their mounting of the scaffold. After all, as the slimy Vice Dean so helpfully says to Huang, ‘new place, new sufferings’.

However, despite the venom with which the cast treats one another, it does not read as an outright embracement of misanthropy. Quite to the contrary, a particular empathy is evident across all of the interweaving stories. Despite our protagonists’ shortcomings, we hope for them to succeed, for them to meet the elephant. The evil of the film lies mostly with the world itself, not the victims surviving within it. When thrust into a cruelly unjust environment, their wretchedness stands as an unavoidable sigh of the oppressed, a lament to their human condition.

Though the initial intention was for the film to be shot statically (something prevented by its low budget), the subtle imperfections of the Steadicam camerawork actually work to its advantage, the small shakes and intense closeups providing us with an almost invasive level of intimacy with the subjects. Helped along with the moodily grey colour palette, each shot is given a sickly pallor. As the cast live out some of their most hopeless moments, we intrude upon their privacy and become co-conspirators. Each shot lingers unhurriedly and uncomfortably, most lasting minutes, the longest lasting over 18 minutes. The audience is offered no respite from the onscreen torment, we are forced to savour every unsavoury moment.

Impressively written, directed, and edited by Hu Bo, the film tragically serves both as his debut and his swansong. A mentee of the esteemed Béla Tarr and recipient of a lengthy string of posthumous accolades, it is safe to say that this was the first exhibit in what should have become a beloved and celebrated film career. An Elephant Sitting Still is as odyssic as it is exhausting, though not to its detriment. Nearing 240 minutes in length, its runtime will inevitably work its way into any discourse surrounding the film, but every second is warranted. To omit a single moment would be to suck the bones of their marrow. Whether you accept or reject the nihilistic philosophy that permeates every sinew of the film, you certainly won’t forget it.

By Joe Muldoon


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