An Elephant Sitting Still
Director: Hu Bo
Year of release: 2019
Running time: 3 hours 54 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
An Elephant Sitting Still is one of the bleakest films about emotional and physical isolation ever made, trafficking in what could be considered arthouse miserablism. However, the first and only film by director Hu Bo (he committed suicide before the film’s premiere) is also a clear-eyed look at the lack of economic infrastructure in northeast China which layers its nihilism under a melancholic heart. Lasting nearly four hours and following a few major characters as they navigate through crumbling cityscapes over the course of a single day, the film slowly builds power through a sense of hopeless anger at being unable to escape one’s personal hell.
At first glance, one suspects Bo is following in the footsteps of his mentor, Béla Tarr, with a gliding camera following his characters in and out of rooms, up staircases, and over large expanses without a single cut. Though aesthetically similar to the films of Tarr, An Elephant Sitting Still is more in tune with the rage of youth (Bo was only 29 when he took his own life) and therefore, has a different energy. The film’s massive running time also might be the kind of self-indulgence inherited from master to pupil, but the length here is an honest attempt to interlock the narrative with the growing complication of the character’s inner lives.
There’s young schoolboy Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) dealing with bullies and an abusive father, an older man named Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) being forced out of his daughter’s apartment and into a nursing home, local gang kingpin Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), who may have his sights set on Wei Bu, and a female student (Wang Yu Wen) having an affair with her teacher. Bo weaves these narrative threads together, but not in a contrived Babel-esque way, since the film isn’t about the interconnectivity of humanity, but the ways in which we deflect our failings unto others. Many scenes are staged with characters pointing fingers, shifting the blame, and exonerating themselves.
In a sense, the geographical space; with its fading coal mines and murky vistas, is a microcosm for an entire population trying to claw their way out of a deep-seated depression. The mundanity of these lives; toiling in obscurity, hoping for greener pastures but knowing such things are a mirage, is central to this extraordinary political epic from a talented filmmaker gone too soon.