Written by: Bianca Garner, CC2K Staff Writer
Chinese director Hu Bo died before completing his first feature about four people trying to escape their problematic small-town life. Hu Bo may have passed away, but he left behind an impressive debut film which is epic in so many ways.
An Elephant Sitting Still managed to secure instant cult status because of the suicide of its 29-year-old novelist-turned-director last October. The film was finished by a team from China’s FIRST Film Festival, the event where Hu presented his project and secured backing from famed auteur, Wang Xiaoshuai in July 2016. Elephant’s epic runtime (nearly four-hours) reportedly drove a wedge between the director and his producers, but don’t be put off as the hours fly by and one becomes engrossed with the characters and narrative.
Set during a single day in a humdrum northern Chinese city, the story revolves around four people whose lives seem to be going nowhere. They feel they are stuck in a rut, trapped with little to no options for a way out. Gangster Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) witnesses his best friend, whose wife he has slept with, jump from a window to her death. Already tormented by his violent father at home, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) runs off after pushing a school bully down a staircase. His classmate and crush, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), is dating the married vice-principal to forget her angst about her mother. And the pensioner Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) silently despairs as his son tries to pack him off to a nursing home, his main concern being unable to take his beloved dog with him.
What connects these four characters is their interest in a story they hear about an elephant in the far-north Chinese outpost of Manzhouli. The animal, as the story goes, sits in a zoo and refuses to eat or move, as if trying to deny its own existence; for the four characters, this echos their own alienated existence. Hu’s well written and constructed screenplay brings these four lonely people into each other’s orbit through convincing coincidences. There is art in the act of simplicity. The viewer feels a great deal of empathy for all four character as the narrative unfolds to show how they are consequences of an oppressive society separated by class, age and gender.
Unquestionably; An Elephant Standing Still is a heavy, serious film which some may find a struggle to watch, but it’s not all doom and gloom and the pay off is rewarding. Hu’s characters remain real, with naturalistic performances reinforced by Hu’s everyday-style dialogue. The film feels like a snapshot and captures a sense of reality, a truthful depiction of the world where life is bleak and tough for many. The cinematography by Fan Chao effectively uses framing, close-ups and focal depth to obscure things he doesn’t want to show, like the mauling of old man, and to highlight his characters’ alienation from the people and events around them. The camera is hand-held and constantly on the move, which helps create a fly-on-the-wall documentary appearance, reinforcing this sense of realism and honesty.
The film depicts beauty in the most dismal of situations and together with his actors, all of whom deliver performances of astounding sensitivity, Hu creates a film which treats its audience with intelligence and respect. An Elephant Sitting Still is a portrait of how fragile humans are, and how we struggle in this world; but we aren’t truly alone, there are others who share our pain. Hu manages to make a bold statement about the current state of China and how divided its people have become. Despite being so young his maturity is admirable.
Debut features rarely come off as ambitious or masterfully constructed as An Elephant Sitting Still. One can’t help speculate on what the future holds for these characters, just as it’s tempting to wonder what direction the filmmaker might have taken had he lived to tell the tale. Hu Bo was influenced by European art house icons such like Krzysztof Kieslowski, providing proof of Hu’s promise as a thoughtful filmmaker who saw the beauty and power of cinema. The movie stands as a memorial to a young talent who burned out too soon, and the attention the film has gained on festival circuit is the least he deserves.