A four-hour odyssey, director Hu Bo’s first and last film is a philosophical triumph…
I didn’t go and see the press screening of An Elephant Sitting Still in the Edinburgh Film Festival; a four hour running time at 9 am put me off. Then I talked to a nice woman who called it “a flawed masterpiece”. This absolutely piqued my fancy, so I sat down in the streaming room and watched 2 hours. I turned the movie off, blown away by what I had just seen, and decided to attend the last public screening because this was a film I knew deserved to be seen on the big screen. An earth-shattering experience, and one made even more so by the circumstances of the making of it; director Hu Bo committed suicide shortly after completing the film. Let me tell you, when you see the talent for all aspects of filmmaking in An Elephant Sitting Still you will know how much of a loss his death is.
The film tells the story of four central characters whose destinies are inextricably linked over the course of one day. Wu Bei (Yuchang Peng, Our Shining Days) is a high school student who mistakenly causes a bullying classmate a trip to the hospital, and goes on the run. The classmate’s brother Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang, Dying To Survive), pursues Wu Bei, and has his own tragic circumstances to deal with. Wu Bei’s friend Huang Ling (Uvin Wang, Rush To The Dead Summer) is seduced by the Vice Dean of the school, and is caught by Wu Bei who makes a viral video of the two in a coffee shop. Finally, an elderly man (an actor whose information is hard to find) is being forced to live in a home by his family. Their destinies are linked together as they all have heard about an elephant in the North Eastern Outpost of Manzhouli that sits still and doesn’t eat or move, reflecting the mental state of all four.
The weight of desolation and sadness, but beauty invades every frame of An Elephant Sitting Still; there is something in this film that can connect with everyone. For some, it may prove too much to take, for others such as myself the connection is so strong that it proves a near life-changing experience. You could watch a hundred popcorn movies and be entertained and have fun; An Elephant Sitting Still reflects the human experience with such bleakness, depth and aesthetic brilliance that you can’t help but sit up, take note and realise life isn’t all wine and roses. As I left the screening I saw two men who had seen the film, looking in their mid 20’s, embrace. The feelings this film evokes are beyond powerful.
Now, to the aesthetics. For a debut film, the virtuosic long takes and use of depth of field, plus the wonderful compositional sense are precocious brilliance. You might think these aspects may smack of self-indulgence or over-pretentiousness, and the latter criticisms certainly have claims, but the overwhelming emotion at play in every single scene justifies the use of them. The journey of these melancholic characters is one full of the precariousness of human existence, reflected by the shooting style that favours compositions wherein the main character in a scene is constantly in focus while everything else is blurry. This emphasises the isolation the characters are feeling, and what everyone feels in life; we cannot look outside of our bubble, and know very little about each other’s personal universes.
Every actor in this film acquits themselves so well it’s ridiculous, with Yuchang and Wang especially showing superb range and wisdom beyond their years. Even peripheral characters like Wang’s mother and Yuchangs best friend are fantastically acted and realised, with their own unique nuances and dialogue. The commitment of these relatively unknown actors to the source material and, it seems, director Hu Bo is evident from the first frame to the last. Hu was a famous novelist before he made the film, and the reflection of this in the approach to narrative is evident; at times you can imagine the film being a fantastic piece of literature.
In influences, An Elephant Sitting Still comes across as pretty European. Kristof Kieslowski, the Polish director famous for his Three Colours trilogy, is echoed in approach to the character design (characters, despite their faults, you really feel empathy for), muted colours, and the melancholy atmosphere of the story. An Elephant Sitting Still does feel distinctly Asian, with notes of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Takeshi Kitano reflected in the risk-taking involved in the style of the film and slow burn of the narrative.
One aspect of the film that raised the hairs on the back of my neck is the soundtrack by Hua Lun; it is is now one of my favourite of all time. Like post-rock crossed with Takeshi Kitano’s regular composer Joe Hisaishi (especially his work on the masterful Sonatine) with spare beautiful guitar arpeggios and electronic asides, it is unforgettable, and anchors the imagery of the film wonderfully.
A flawed masterpiece, indeed. Towards the end, An Elephant Sitting Still loses its credibility a little, with some strained scenarios that pile more and more misery on the characters, and sure some footage could have been cut out. Despite this, as a cinema experience, I reckon the film will be hard to beat not just for Asian but all cinema this year. It’s an unmissable, essential film that stands as a eulogy to a great artist whose memory will live on.