In the case of An Elephant Sitting Still, there is tragedy both on- and off-screen. The news of novelist and filmmaker Hu Bo’s suicide has been documented in many reviews for his first feature film, and it is hard not to equate the tragedy to the events unfolding on-screen in his four-hour-long tragi-epic, where the sadness and isolation of the world weighs heavy on every frame.
To mythologize An Elephant Sitting Still as a suicide note, however, would be a disservice, a superficial writing off of what is one of the most fully-realized cinematic visions of the last few years. The film is a swan song, sure, and the song it sings is a solemn symphony showcasing the fallible humanity within an inhumane world.
“The world is just disgusting,” a character at one point observes, heavily, as he stares into the distance. Another equates the world to trash. As casual as saying hello, the characters in the film mourn for a sympathetic world they may have never known.
Bleak though it is, the film is a mesmerizing feat of both storytelling and filmmaking. Hu tells his story, which interweaves the events of four characters over the course of a day, in unrelenting long takes. Some directors who regularly exercise the long take aim for extravagance—they ask how long can we make the shot, how flashy can we make the camera movement, how intricate can we make the staging, and, most importantly, how much of it can we get in focus.
Hu does not do this, yet the craft is just as ambitious and just as technically deft as these showy long take directors. Hu’s characters exist in an enveloping world which they feel they cannot escape from, and the long takes put us into this world. But the characters are all isolated within their own tragic stories, so often Hu will isolate them in the frame, staging shots for composition-in-depth but not using deep focus. Separation is the film’s defining feature, and shallow depth of field is the weapon by which it is illustrated.
The film is bleak, the narrative threads dealing with a teenage boy (Peng Yuchang) on the run after pushing another student (Zhang Xiaolong) down a flight of stairs, a teenage girl (Wang Yuwen) caught up in a scandal after starting an affair with her vice principal, a man (Zhang Yu) racked with guilt after engaging in an affair that causes a suicide, and an elderly man (Liu Congxi) whose future lies in an exceedingly depressing nursing home.
And its aesthetic is bleak to match. The color is washed out. The locales are drab and largely empty. The characters’ faces would be the only respite from the dreary display if they weren’t all stained by a seemingly impenetrable weight. This may make the film seem off-putting—it certainly is not a stroll in the park—but it is a technically-adept, prosaic piece of cinema.
Tragically, An Elephant Sitting Still is Hu’s final film, but it has the dramatic and cinematic power to live on (thankfully as Hu intended, at 237 minutes in length) as an opus. You may have to be patient with the languid pace at which it moves, but you will be rewarded for doing so.
An Elephant Sitting Still: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)