Film review: An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) directed by Hu Bo

“He told me the other day. There is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long. Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. I don’t know.”

This is a Chinese film that very few, if any of you, will have heard of or consider seeing. This is by no means a complaint or boast — it’s a difficult sell, with a crushing four-hour runtime and a bleak story surrounding its production. An Elephant Sitting Still is overshadowed by the fact it was the first and only film by director Hu Bo, who committed suicide shortly after the film’s completion.

The film can be difficult to objectively assess given its tragic external circumstances. While some media outlets suggested that the director’s death came following a long battle with the producers over the film’s length, it’s fairly apparent that the work itself is the product of a severely, severely depressed mind. It’s hard not to see it as a four-hour long suicide note.

Taking place over a course of a single miserable day, the film follows the complex lives of four characters in a decaying, winterly industrial town vaguely situated around the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. One is a bullied schoolboy from a dead-end public school, and another is his classmate, a lonely, neglected schoolgirl in an ill-fated relationship with her school principal. There’s also a low-level thug, whose actions led to a friend’s suicide, and a forlorn pensioner who is getting kicked out of his home by his own family.

Many hot-button issues in contemporary Chinese society such as corruption, selfishness, housing shortages, the treatment of the elderly, and failing public institutions are touched upon throughout the narrative. People fall to their doom. A dog is mauled to death. Someone catches on fire in a restaurant kitchen. People’s lives are ruined by social media. Characters proclaim the world is a wasteland and that there is no escape from the pain of life. All the while, the characters are drawn to the rumour of a mythical elephant in the China-Russian border city of Manzhouli (coming across as a sort of religious salvation entity) who sits all day in its enclosure, ignoring the rest of the world…

And what of the film’s artistic merits? Despite its daunting length, the film never feels punishingly long. The cinematography employs a bitter, documentary-like realism. The film has numerous long takes, which are all well-composed and surprisingly graceful at times. All four of the main characters receive adequate screentime, including the sole female lead who, despite not appearing much in the first half of the film, ends up with perhaps the most compellingly realistic storyline of the bunch.

There’s also an excellently brooding Chinese post-rock soundtrack underpinning the whole film. And the few moments of violence are never gratuitous, happening largely off-camera. There are parts of it which reminded me of some of Jia Zhangke’s films (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart, Ash Is Purest White) with its fetishisation of firearms and in its depiction of callous, uncaring humanity.

To call this film “raw” is an understatement. To call this film “nihilistic” is an understatement. It’s a film that seems to embrace the call for total nonexistence and questions whether it is possible to find relief from human suffering, even by insensate means. This film is an interesting, heavy thing to exist in this world. I don’t regret watching it. But I wouldn’t recommend watching it unless you desperately think you want to. I’m sure many of you can find something better to do with four hours of your free time.

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