Writer/director Hu Bo took his own life shortly after completing An Elephant Sitting, adapted from one of his own stories. He was only 29 years old. His lone feature film is so deeply moving and despondent. It is beautiful, and yet it aches from the first minute to its final shot nearly four hours later. The movie feels like a cross between the work of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (24 City, A Touch of Sin) and Hungarian arthouse auteur Bela Tarr (Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies). By that I mean a contemplative examination of class in contemporary China executed in long takes rife with despair; I also mean an unexpected blend of gritty realism and existential allegory.
While the movie is 234 minutes long, An Elephant Sitting Still only felt like 150 minutes, and it cast a shadow on my spirits for about two days afterwards. What is it about a great film’s all-enveloping melancholy that alters the perception of time? And what does it say when a movie stays with you like a wound that doesn’t heal?
Just writing about An Elephant Sitting Still now, I can feel a dip in my mood despite my enthusiasm, my deep appreciation for the movie. I feel intimidated writing about this melancholy human epic, which feels like both a political and personal statement by a person who is no longer with us.
An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐)
Director: Hu Bo
Release Date: March 8, 2019
An Elephant Sitting Still centers on four people living in an economically depressed town in northern China who each confront the ugly future ahead of them. Teenagers Wei Bu (Yuchang Peng) and classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) struggle with abusive parents and a dead end school that is literally crumbling around them. Wang Jin (Congxi Liu) is an elderly man whose kids want to put him in a nursing home and take over his apartment. Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang) is a lowlife local gangster who uses people around him and discards them. Their lives intersect over the course of a single day, each of them drawn to the story of an elephant in distant Manzhouli that is said to sit still and endure its life of pain with serenity. They all want to see this elephant; it may be the last hopeful thing they see in their lives.
Imagine if the only reprieve you had from the ugliness of living was the possibility of seeing an elephant simply sitting still. What a meagre joy in such a small thing, but what a symbol for the struggles of mere existence; these characters seem to merely exist. It can feel like a battle simply to get through a single day of life, a war to live a life so limited by factors outside of your control. What else is there to this world if you effectively have zero agency? An elephant, maybe, that feels no pain, maybe. The bleakness of it all.
During the 19th century, “seeing the elephant” was a popular phrase in America, particularly when describing experiences in the Civil War or the Gold Rush. To see the elephant usually meant you gained some sort of worldly experience, but it wasn’t worth the cost or what was lost in gaining that wisdom. I’m not sure if Bo was familiar with the phrase, but it was on my mind as soon as I heard the title and read the synopsis for the film a year ago.
Bo studied under Tarr, whose aesthetic is apparent throughout. Many shots in An Elephant Sitting Still last several minutes long, with the camera moving around the spaces and subjects of each shot. Individual long takes seem comprised of multiple subshots, with striking tableaux arrived at as if by chance rather than the choreography of camera, performer, and script. While there is often a visual bravado to long takes in films, I feel like they are just fanciful images that call attention to themselves if they lack something emotionally resonant to anchor the viewer into the heart of the moment. Shorn of its arthouse aesthetics and existential postures, An Elephant Sitting Still would still work as a rousing melodrama about class, income inequality, selfishness, greed, and the changing face of a nation leaving so many people behind. The long takes are not fancy technical feats. They beat with life.
The sheer human stakes of An Elephant Sitting Still—where the quotidian and the allegorical merge so intimately, as if they shouldn’t be thought of as separate spheres of human experience—imbue every long take with remarkable weight. The movie feels propelled by equal parts rage and despair even in its occasional aimlessness. That may be why it felt to me like only three-fifths of its runtime. While watching the quality of light change as the sun goes down, I cared deeply for the fates of each bedraggled life witnessed on screen. I was not just watching passively, but engaged with these characters. In them I could see some of my own darkest feelings given voice on screen. There is a sense of presence in every shot.
Bo often relies on shallow focus, keeping his protagonist in the foreground in focus while everything else around them remains blurred. It allows the audience to occupy the literal and figurative headspace of the character, and it works well as a portrait of what a deep, unending depressive episode is like. While walking aimlessly around the town, there is a tension simply from maintaining focus on a single person as they exist in a mental fog. Beyond the blurry confines of the shot, the grey, dim, nihilistic mood is mirrored in the harsh concrete of the architecture, the pervasive smog in the overcast skies, and the washed out color palettes.
Two moments in An Elephant Sitting Still feel like homages to Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. I can only describe one; to describe the other would ruin a sublime and unexpected moment in both the Tarr film and the Bo film. In one of the most famous scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, an enraged crowd storms into a hospital, destroying everything around them while brutalizing patients in their rooms. Here in An Elephant Sitting Still, Wang walks into a nursing home to view the living conditions for himself. The camera drifts down a dark hall, and we glimpse into several filthy rooms, the imagery somehow communicating the ripe, dingy smells of this assisted-care facility.
In Wecrkmiester Harmonies, the violence we witness is physical, in An Elephant Sitting Still, the violence in this homage is psychological; in both, humanity has failed at being humane. A lack of mutuality, common humanity, and sense that our fates are bound together seems to be an undercurrent throughout Bo’s film. Everyone is so lonely, so detached, at times so self-interested. What can be done about this pervasive alienation that has decayed the world?
The wall-to-wall melancholy imagery is enhanced by Hualun’s original score. (You can listen to it on Spotify.) Built on spare, repeating melodies, the music feels like the introductory intimations of a post-rock song. Guitar, synth, and piano arrangements each simmer and seethe, but they never quite reach an expected catharsis. Rather than the ecstatic crescendos of Godspeed You Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky, the aural climax of Hualun’s score comes along softly during the end credits. At that point, the presence of human voices feels like a relief from the overwhelming, albeit majestic, sadness that has been endured.
I watched An Elephant Sitting Still on the big screen rather than through a screener at home. There is something to be said about watching this movie uninterrupted, and taking in all of its immensities without a break. I was emotionally and philosophically overwhelmed by the experience, and at some point when I’m ready I want to watch An Elephant Sitting Still again. More than that, I just want to talk about the movie with someone—to connect with another person, especially if they are suffering or struggling—because there is so much more to say, to unpack, to admire, and even to love about this movie.
Tarr introduced An Elephant Sitting Still at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year. Prior to the screening, Tarr said of the late filmmaker, “I feel guilty I couldn’t protect him properly. It’s a shame. But how can one protect a person constantly surrounded by a storm?” Bo’s death isn’t just a terrible loss to his friends and family, but a loss to the world of film. There is at least An Elephant, and it is worth the effort to see. That art can remind you that it is worth the effort; the meagre but invaluable hope of it all.