“You can go wherever you want. However, you’ll find nothing different.”
Despite its extremely positive reviews from critics and the audience alike, Hu Bo’s 2018 drama film An Elephant Sitting Still (Chinese: 大象席地而坐, Dà Xiàng Xídì Érzuò, which literally translates to “an elephant sitting on the ground”) remains shrouded in the gray mystery of its premise, far from reach, still and monumental in its virtues.
In a gray and hazy provincial city of northern China, the lives and paths of four ostensibly unrelated people intersect over the course of a single day. Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a criminal and local gang leader, sees his best friend commit suicide in front of his eyes; Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a young student, runs away from home after defending his friend from a bullying classmate. At the same school, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is threatened with having her illicit affair with the married deputy principal exposed.
Finally, the elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) takes his dog for a walk while pressured by his son and bride to move into a nursing home and sell his house. All four heroes see in the still elephant of the Manzhouli circus a flickering beacon of hope in their attempt to escape their own predicaments and the utter decay, violence and disaster around them.
The film’s emotional intensity and lengthy running time are not for the faint of heart, nor will the untimely demise of its director Hu Bo make anything about venturing into his debut film less profound and heart crushing. The 29-year-old Chinese novelist and film director took his own life soon after completing his first and only feature film, but this shouldn’t restrict one’s interpretation of the massive epic drama to the confines of a mere suicide note.
Surpassing the limits of the creator’s own sentiments, it engulfs existential agony and human suffering. The film reveals an individual and collective quagmire through the fictional legend of a circus elephant in Manzhouli, which tolerates hardships and torture with stoic perseverance.
Based on his own short story from the 2017 collection Big Crack, Hu Bo creates an almost dystopian setting for his protagonists. It all happens during a single day, redefining time in the same fashion as Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Surrounded by clouds and smog, we follow the protagonists around a city stuck in an everlasting gray and sepia limbo. It’s not only the sad events taking place in the film, but also the surrounding landscape of abandoned, decrepit buildings – the scattered rubbish and broken human relations – that make the atmosphere suffocating through long camera takes and purposefully silent pauses.
Medium close-up shots of the protagonists’ shoulders and back prevail in what stands out as an attempt to express their alienation, not only from their world but also from themselves. During the dialogue, the camera chooses one speaker at a time, making it almost impossible to objectively follow the unfolding narrative and identify with any of them. Therefore, we must rely solely on the director to piece the puzzle together.
Visually influenced by the Hungarian director and his mentor, Béla Tarr, Hu Bo chooses extended single takes and flashbacks that splinter the story into idiosyncratic fragments. Meanwhile, the ambient background music exposes the tragic circumstances of the heroes trapped in a nonviable setting. The story eclipses Chinese borders, reflecting the misery and estrangement experienced by citizens of any given country.
Therefore, it’s imperative that this film is viewed as something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an authentic representation of the universal despair that permeates everything as life and death continue to regulate one’s action and inaction. Portraying the existential anguish of the modern society, this film demands your undivided attention until the end.
Hu Bo’s treatise on the life and death continuum may prove too intense for some, but arriving at the film’s credits is worth the journey. The textual-turned-cinematic work of the Chinese director seems doomed to commercial failure, but it’s a covert reward for the initiated few in these fast-paced times.
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