An Elephant Sitting Still
Hu Bo's first and final feature is a quietly devastating reflection on the desperation of the left-behind in modern China
With An Elephant Sitting Still, it’d be a thumping understatement to say that Chinese director Hu Bo refused to let his lack of experience get in the way of his ambition. His debut feature runs just shy of four hours and is thoroughly unflinching in its portrayal of four people enveloped by malaise in a China bereft of opportunity for those left behind by a country increasingly in thrall to greed and materialism. As Liu Jian did earlier in the year when his film Have a Nice Day grappled with similar themes – albeit with a very different approach – Hu has deliberately set his story in a nondescript, never-named city, so as to reinforce the message that it could be unfolding anywhere in modern China.
The difficulties facing the central quartet are myriad and yet presented through the same unwavering, hyper-realistic lens each time. The thuggish Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) wrestles with his best friend’s suicide; Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) struggles to escape his abusive father, and quietly despairs as his would-be girlfriend, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), distracts herself from her own suffocating domestic situation in wildly misguided fashion by carrying on an affair with her vice-principal; Bu’s grandfather Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) offers a grim view of the other end of the age spectrum, as he feels powerless to resist his son’s attempts to send him to a nursing home.
The film’s glacial pacing is as much about the way it’s presented as its epic running time; Hu makes extensive use of lingering Steadicam shots, often letting lines of dialogue hang in the air, with silences saying as much about the desperation and desolation of these characters as anything they do or say. An Elephant Sitting Still is not an easy watch but is a richly rewarding one, from the bleak beauty of the cinematography to the powerfully understated performances. It will be Hu’s final work: he took his own life at just 29, shortly after completing it. It’s a profound loss that underlines the film’s central message: that for those were dealt a bad hand in present-day China, opportunities to escape – let alone progress or flourish – are scant.
An Elephant Sitting Still is released 14 Dec