Review: An Elephant Sitting Still Is a Mournful Vision of a World Abandoned

The film’s gritty, mundane agonies come to feel like a series of moral tests with genuinely unpredictable outcomes.

An Elephant Standing Still
Photo: KimStim

A sense of nearly apocalyptic dread looms over the first hour of writer-director Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. The film follows four major characters over its nearly four-hour running time, each of them mired in an emotional lethargy born of exhaustion, or perhaps more specifically the exhaustion of rage. Flimed in Jingxing County in northeast China, the setting is a bygone hub of the country’s mining industry, a town whose gray pallor and concrete buildings wordlessly convey the abrupt and radical shift in China’s economy that’s left entire regions in economic distress. Strangers accost one another with almost random cruelty, and nearly everyone appears to be at their wit’s end.

Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a schoolboy, is introduced padding a bludgeon with packing tape as his verbally abusive father (Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang) insults him and implores him to move to his grandmother’s. A classmate, Huang Ling (Yuwen Wang), withstands a similar blow-up from her mother. Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) lives on the balcony of his daughter’s (Danyi Li) home, and he’s being implored to move into a nursing home so the rest of his family can afford to move into a smaller apartment in a nicer, more expensive school district. Less despairing, at least initially, is the introduction of Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a local gang kingpin who waxes philosophical in post-coital conversation about a circus elephant in the far-off city of Manzhouli that has become a cultural sensation for his refusal to move or eat.

Though they’re deeply isolated, three of Hu’s protagonists live in the same crumbling building, and all of their lives will come to intersect in a narrative rich with incident and the looming threat of death. Each scene of the film consists of an unbroken Steadicam shot (running anywhere from a minute to upwards of 15) following one of the main subjects; though An Elephant Sitting Still takes place over an entire day, cuts between scenes give the impression of four stories playing out simultaneously over mere hours. Some of this is doubtless due to Hu’s follow-from-behind shooting style (shot by Fan Chao), which feels deliberately pitched between an RPG video game and Dardennes-style verité.

The film’s elaborate, gracefully interlocking narrative is well paced, sustaining itself durably over the course of a daunting runtime. Though the action remains almost unrelentingly bleak, Hu’s protagonists become richer as their lives become enmeshed. They find themselves in moments of decision for different reasons: a murder, a suicide, a viral video leak, and an eviction. Like many of the one-dimensional, enraged supporting characters, all four deflect blame for the crises they become embroiled in. An Elephant Sitting Still isn’t hopeful or deluded enough to rescue its characters from their failings, but it does force them out of their truculence and isolation. The film is always implicitly resisting an impulse toward nihilism.

Despite the rigor of Hu’s narrative and aesthetic approach, his style proves difficult to pigeonhole. The murky landscape, marked by the distant sound of industry, recalls Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert through a low-grade digital filter. Even when they’re densely populated, Hu’s interiors look as though they’ve been abandoned for years. Outside, a far-off coal mine seems to mock the population’s hope for security and advancement. (At one point, Wei Bu stumbles toward it and hurls expletives at it.) Hu’s camera movements are surely inspired by Béla Tarr—a champion of An Elephant Sitting Still who helped to ensure it exists in its current cut after Hu committed suicide shortly after wrapping the film—but Hu’s rhythms are itchier, more curious, and less magisterial.

Some of the filmmaker’s more ambitious set pieces are quietly stunning, prone to shifts from shallow to deep focus that communicate seismic changes in outlook. One particularly remarkable take finds Yu Cheng attempting to salvage a doomed relationship, reacting in fury after his advances are thwarted, and suddenly saving the life of a line cook after a kitchen fire. This act of heroism does nothing to rebut Yu Cheng’s inhumane words and deeds, but it does suggest his anarchic psyche isn’t fixed. The film’s gritty, mundane agonies come to feel like a series of moral tests with genuinely unpredictable outcomes.

This fabular quality is underlined by the film’s philosophical bent, which is effective but heavy-handed and marred by a fleeting, tinny soundtrack. Expository sequences about the elephant in Manzhouli become redundant, as is the general bleakness of the film’s supporting cast. There are many variations of a stray moment where a boy sweeping a school’s hallway mutters: “The world is a wasteland.” Hu unearths so much depth and resilience in his protagonists, but he’s quick to villainize others. Nonetheless, he effectively communicates his main characters’ advance toward the elephant as an act of empathy and resistance. An Elephant Sitting Still denies them hope, but it does offer them refuge and a form of salvation.

 Cast: Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu, Liu Congxi, Yuwen Wang, Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang, Danyi Li  Director: Hu Bo  Screenwriter: Hu Bo  Distributor: KimStim  Running Time: 230 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray is an event coordinator for Frontier in Bushwick, Maine. His writing has also appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes.

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