The world is a wasteland. That’s how the world is described in “An Elephant Sitting Still”, the directorial debut and (sadly) the last film of Chinese film director Hu Bo. In other words, a character in the film also states that the world is just disgusting. Now that’s a hard statement to start with. However, that’s the conclusion you will get after the film. “An Elephant Sitting Still” is extraordinary, uncomfortable and compelling at the same time.
We’ve all had one of those days in which everything seems wrong to us. Everything around us is empty, sad and dark; and there is nothing that makes us change our mind. As a character says in the movie: The world is a wasteland. In effect, all the characters in this story live in a wasteland. It is inevitable to speak about “An Elephant Sitting Still” without forgetting the tragic event that occurred after the making of the film: the suicide of its director, Hu Bo, at the young age of 29 years.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” is a very peculiar film for a lot of reasons, but the main one is due to the fact that once the film is seen, one understands many things and manages to delve into his personal diary. It’s hard to deal with the feeling this film and context provokes, since the movie feels like a farewell letter, or as if Hu Bo wanted to blow off some steam to the audience. A hard declaration against the world, representing how hard and dark life can get, “An Elephant Sitting Still” is a wonderful film masterfully crafted and acted.
Although when we deal with a bad day in real life in which we see everything gray, the truth is that the next day, a week, or a month later at the most, we find ourselves much better, with a more optimistic vision of the future. This does not happen in the movie. Everything is miserable, decadent, dark and unfair. There is not a hint of optimism in the story.
A boy suffers bullying in high school and at the same time he does not receive the love that he should in his own home. An old man is pressured by his own sons to leave his apartment to go to a nursing home. A delinquent goes to bed with the wife of his best friend out of spite and the friend then commits suicide, throwing himself out the window. A girl who can no longer bear the bitter coexistence with her mother and is questioned, due to a video of her with a teacher in a karaoke that has become viral. All these characters roam the streets looking for unanswered questions, fleeing from their routine and from society. The film may well be seen as a critique of Chinese society or even society itself, as a aconcept. Or in addition to society, something wider: The world. Somehow, all of these characters eventually share some kind of connection. They find themselves searching for a lost destiny. According to the young boy, in Manzhouli there is an elephant that sits there all day long and does not move, no matter what happens. For some reason, this intrigues him so much he wants to go there. Just to see it, or just to get away and see if things over there are still the same.
The film is nearly 4 hours long, and particularly in the third act, there is some slow pacing that can lead to some tediousness; but honestly, every minute on this film is necessary. “An Elephant Sitting Still” is as visually gray as the story itself, without any ray of sun: everything happens under the gray sky and darkness of the night. Fan Chao’s cinematography, without featuring high skilled camera techniques or a superficial image composition, is truly striking. We follow our characters all the time with eminent long takes filmed with excellency, which makes us total witnesses of their experiences, making the camera work spectacular. We almost never see the characters from faraway; they are all seen in close shots, allowing the audience to see their true feelings in their eyes. Hu Bo’s direction is extraordinary, especially regarding the coordination of the entire number of long takes that are included in the film, and also the performances. Absolutely all the actors are excellent, all at the same level, something really unusual and exceptional.
The elephant that sits still at all times is maybe a metaphor for the current Chinese society. What is certain is that “An Elephant Sitting Still” will be a film that will get people talking, not only because what’s outside the film, but because what’s inside.