An Elephant Sitting Still


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

An Elephant Sitting Still
"Despite its grey, flat light and general melancholy punctured by menace, An Elephant Sitting Still is, by the end considerably more optimistic than it first appears about humanity." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Near the start of An Elephant Sitting Still and, again, towards the end, there is a shot of snowy ground, occasionally broken by the stem of a plant, dead looking but surely still alive. This exemplifies the chilly and quietly desolate atmosphere that pervades Hu Bo's film, which is lent an air of additional poignancy by the fact that it was both his debut feature and last, as he took his own life not long after it was finished, at the age of just 29.

Its themes, which include suicide, are hard not to view in that context, but I'd argue Hu's film offers something richer than simply a personal world view, being just as equally a reflection of certain realities in a China where rapid industrialisation, explosive growth, movement of people and these change's subsequent influence on families have left their mark. Also despite its grey, flat light and general melancholy punctured by menace, An Elephant Sitting Still is, by the end considerably more optimistic than it first appears about humanity and, in particular, our ability to strive for change even if we aren't exactly sure what shape the change will take.

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That last may be hard to believe during the first hour or so of its bladder-testing near four-hour running time. As we're first introduced to the characters whose lives will criss-cross through the course of a day and into the night, the circumstances are uniformly grim - especially between generations. Teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is the subject of his father's ire at home - "You're stinking this place out!" dad yells, one of a litany of rubbish and trash-related lines of dialogue that run through the script. Bu's elderly neighbour Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) is suffering abuse in the opposite direction, with his son and daughter-in-law desperate to pack him off to a nursing home so they can move to a house with a better school catchment for their young daughter. Bu's friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is also at loggerheads with her mum, a home environment so hostile even a birthday cake becomes weaponised. Meanwhile, drifting on the outskirts of these stories is an increasingly self-loathing petty criminal Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu), who, because of his objectionable younger brother, finds himself on the hunt for Bu for most of the film.

Those fond of modern Chinese cinema may find themselves thinking of Jia Zhang-Ke's films, which depict the way economic and social changes have left a country stressed-out. But if his films have people on the verge of breakdown, Hu, in contrast, shows them about to blow up. While Hu doesn't wallow in violence, it is constantly lurking in the shadows, just waiting to erupt - one kid has a gun, Bu makes himself a beat-down stick and a snooker cue is haunted by a aura of threat. This is coupled with a sense of the isolation of the characters. Hu frequently opts for tracking shots that emphasise them walking, alone with their thoughts, and when other characters are present, he generally keeps the focus on just one of them, so that the distance from others - often off-screen or reduced to a background blur - is emphasised. Even in a nursing home, filled with people, Hu's cinematographer Fan Chao tracks slowly through to show each person trapped in their own little realm of loneliness. The lengthy focus on the characters in turn, and as they interact, far from being dull, adds to our understanding and ensures that the film never becomes confusing, as it might if Hu opted to chop and change all over the place.

Relationships are, for the most part, transactional, with emotions subdued and self-interest to the fore. Conversations, meanwhile, are almost permanently on the verge of confrontation, even between friends, and acts of friendship or kindness are met with deep suspicion and hostility. Still, and importantly, these moments of selflessness continue to emerge at unexpected junctures even as Hu paints a world full of people who have uniformly accepted the need to strive without goals and who have come to equate themselves with nothing more than rubbish. The characters may be drawn to the elephant of the title, mentioned multiple times through the course of the film, and which doesn't move - but as Hu paradoxically shows, even those who don't move can make their presence felt and fatalism can end up being a potential breeding ground for hope.

Reviewed on: 12 Jan 2019
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An Elephant Sitting Still packshot
The lives of four people cross over the course of a day in China.

Director: Hu Bo

Writer: Hu Bo

Starring: Yu Zhang, Yuchang Peng, Uvin Wang, Congxi Li, Yu Zhang, Yuchang Peng, Uvin Wang, Congxi Li

Year: 2018

Runtime: 230 minutes

Country: China

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