A mournful, magisterial, and often moving debut feature, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still might best be described as a contemplation of despair—or, more specifically, as an incremental, painful probing of how much a single person can bear before they're driven to tragic release. Born in 1988, Hu took his life soon after completing the film, and since its premiere in the Forum section of last year's Berlinale, the feature has been nigh-impossible to view apart from that fact. Its opening minutes tell of an elephant in the northern Chinese town of Manzhouli that simply sits, unmoving, and ignores the world. The seemingly apocryphal tale—which one might consider alongside the ancient Indian fable of the blind men and an elephant—is taken from the director’s novel Huge Crack (2017), and also serves as the primary motivator of the story’s harried principal characters, for whom Manzhouli becomes a kind of mythical haven, a destination that might offer them a reprieve from the harshness of existence, if only they could get there. But it aptly describes, too, the position of a potential viewer, for whom this 230-minute feature stands as both a proposition to shut out the world, and a test for how much bleakness they might be willing to weather.
Audiences would not be wrong to be skeptical. Make no mistake: there’s nary a spark of joy or redemptive feeling across this hefty feature, which might look, from afar, like a lugubrious, grueling affair prized mainly for its austere monumentality. But stick with it, and you might find more than such assessments would suggest, for though there’s doom and gloom aplenty, there’s also no shortage of beauty—of the mournful, sepulchral variety to be sure, but beauty nonetheless.
Despite the film’s considerable length, its plot, which follows four tenuously linked characters in an industrial Chinese town, isn’t much more than skeletal. The life of a schoolboy, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), takes a George Washington-like turn when he pushes a bully down a flight of stairs, an act that the boy’s older brother Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a two-bit local gangster, feels duty-bound to avenge. Wei’s classmate and adolescent crush Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is having an affair with the local school principal, knowledge of which soon gets outed, upending her already tense relationship with her mother. At the same time, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), an elderly man whom Wei runs into during his wanderings, struggles to live with his daughter and son-in-law, who are hankering to shuttle him off to a retirement home. There are further developments here and there—at one point involving a baseball bat and a brutal act of violence—but these are subordinate to the film’s primary impression of figures just drifting hither and thither, borne listlessly along the familiar paths of least resistance.
From the get-go, the baseline of the film’s desolate mood is pushed so high that the story takes on the qualities of a fable; to wit: a schoolmate’s unprovoked statement to Wei Bu that “the world is a wasteland,” which, far from being po-faced, rings with an unexpected touch of wry humor. (“A quote from a book,” the boy explains. “I’m moved.”) The opening passage, which cuts between its four principals and a snowy void, immediately locates An Elephant Sitting Still in a pensive, liminal space far afield from kitchen-sink realism. Indeed, the prevailing atmosphere—a sense of free-floating, discombobulating anxiety absorbed into the thrum of Hua Lun’s memorably drone-y, reverb-heavy score—is practically post-apocalyptic. The town's miasmic decrepitude is blanketed by a constant oppressive murk. It's almost a blessing in the face of the landscape's harsh, wintry light.
At the same time, the film's numerous fractious relationships, often defined by a generational divide, are so drained of the usual markers of tenderness and warmth that they register as affected, recalling, through notably different stylistic means, the stark, "model"-like interactions in the films of Robert Bresson, whose The Devil Probably (1977) serves as a useful model for Hu's feature. Relevant is J. Hoberman's enduring assessment of the film as "a Dostoyevskian story of a tormented soul presented in the stylized manner of a medieval illumination," as well as its contempt for polluted modern society and its characters' monomaniacal drive towards oblivion. Both works may occupy distinct times and cultures, but the deathdream of youth—those for whom revolution has become an unmistakably past-tense affair—is perhaps not so dissimilar the world over. Bresson faced threats of censorship for his film's alleged incitements to suicide, and though An Elephant Sitting Still has skirted such charges (even becoming something of an unlikely event for Chinese audiences), it may still cause one to ponder the lucid, oft-quoted summation proffered by The Devil Probably's death-driven Charles: "My sickness is seeing clearly."
A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Hu Bo went on to take part in the FIRST International Film Festival Financing Forum, and in 2016 worked under the supervision of Béla Tarr, which may account for why An Elephant Sitting Still doesn’t feel entirely beholden to the currents of contemporary Chinese cinema. Comprised mainly of lengthy, low-light, shallow-focus Steadicam shots that unfold over the course of a single day, the film is closer to the studied entropy of Sátántangó (1994) than, say, the oneiric, humid haze of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), which the film competed against at the 55th Golden Horse Awards, where it was nominated for six awards, and won three, including Best Feature Film. As shot by cinematographer Fan Chau, the film is almost perversely drained of color, composed largely of stark whites and ash-gray tones—and yet it’s part of Hu’s methodology that we find infinite variation within this narrow register, that this spatiotemporal slice should feel boundless the more we look at it. The grit and grime of an atomized China, so memorably catalogued in Huang Weikai’s radically fractured, found-footage documentary Disorder (2009), are here rendered with somber clarity; the film is as sensuous and tactile as it is despairing. In one particular movement, Wei Bu descends a dark stairwell and strikes a match that he then flings upwards; the camera pans to reveal a concrete ceiling scorched in a pattern that resembles nothing so much as an ashy constellation. The sense of cyclical entrapment and repetition is overwhelming, but it’s entwined with the ache of just being there in the moment—a manifestation, perhaps, of the director’s assertion that “the truly valuable things in life lie in the cracks of the world.”
An Elephant Sitting Still is, understandably, not without its longueurs, although even at its most enervating, it retains an unshakable plangency; its temporal attenuations evoke a haunting, even as the forces bearing down on its peripatetic loners become more crushingly corporeal. (And anyway, to quote Manny Farber: “How many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?”) As Hu takes the film from first light to an extended gloaming to the dead of night, its characters attempt, at every moment, to push beyond the inertia of their former lives, with harrowing, violent results. But what some might take as a pitiable wallow in the muck strikes me more as an unceasing struggle against despair. After a number of detours, Wei Bu and Huang Ching eventually board a bus out of town, a development imbued with the existential heft and voluptuous romanticism of a lovers-on-the-run scenario—something like the frigid finale of Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994). Now fugitives, unable to return to the place they once called home, however oppressive they may have found it before, the two set out to Manzhouli, a sub-prefectural city near the border of Mongolia and Russia, and thus a major Chinese port of entry. Their destination is, quite literally, the end of the road, but it is, equally, an invitation to start anew. The film’s transcendent final scene resounds like a clarion call: we may be groping in the dark, but perhaps it’s enough to just keep on, always—steady, but never still.