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Hardly anyone smiles during An Elephant Sitting Still’s four-hour running time – and when they do, every smile is bitter. A burning fuse-wire of injustice and despair runs through this formidable debut feature by Hu Bo, who killed himself aged 29 shortly after completing it in 2017.
Adapting from his own short story, Hu compiles a kind of befogged Chinese Magnolia, following multiple characters in an industrial city, all of whom have fallen foul of someone else’s selfishness. Teenager Yu Cheng (Peng Yuchang) stands up to the school bully on behalf of a mate accused of stealing the latter’s phone; a classmate (Wang Yuwen) is having an affair with the vice-dean; a jaded neighbour is being forced out of his home by his own children; and the bully’s petty thug brother (Zhang Yu) is honour-bound to avenge him.
From the films of Jia Zhangke to the sardonic 2017 animation Have a Nice Day, a burgeoning body of work is testifying to alienation and cruelty in new capitalist China – but An Elephant Sitting Still may be the bleakest yet. Filming with a ghostly, airless palette, Hu follows his cast entirely in long Steadicam takes reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s Elephant; it makes them seem alternately questing and lost. Characters constantly run into each others’ backs, exposing unexpected aspects of themselves. Even the predators are shown up as victims: the jilted Zhang blends hoodlum cool and vulnerability enough to suggest we might have a successor to Tony Leung.
Sometimes it’s little too even-paced, and there’s the occasional overplayed nihilistic outburst. But Hu’s single-minded stylistic focus builds into a panorama of a society with a true moralist’s eye. Everyone dreams of escape to the city of Manzhouli and of – in a lyrical flourish – the titular pachyderm that’s supposed to be living there. Perhaps the animal represents an elusive tranquility; perhaps it stands for mammoth and demoralised modern China itself.
Hu provides no easy resolutions, and evidently found none himself. This epic of futility will have to stand as an epitaph for an extremely promising career cut short.
Source: The Guardian
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