An Elephant Sitting Still, Dir. Hu Bo, People’s Republic of China 2018, 230 mins, Chinese with English subtitles
An elephant that sits and ignores the world becomes an obsession for the protagonists of the late writer and filmmaker Hu Bo’s four-hour epic, for whom it represents the possibility of escape from the stagnation and violence of their daily lives.
Set in a decaying industrial city, An Elephant Sitting Still is composed of beautifully orchestrated sequence shots punctuated by silences and sudden outbursts of verbal and physical violence. The film unfolds over a single suspenseful day and follows the intertwined struggles of its characters: Bu is on the run after critically injuring Shuai, the school bully; Shuai’s older brother, a gangster, seeks revenge; another of Bu’s schoolmates, Ling, fears the release of an incriminating video. Although the emphasis is on the characters’ subjectivities – achieved visually through the predominance of facial close-ups and shallow focus – the film firmly situates their tribulations within the bleak and determining context of the city’s economic depression.
Critically acclaimed since its premiere at the Berlinale, Hu Bo’s ambitious first and final film delivers a subtle and furious social commentary on contemporary China that is destined to become a landmark of Chinese cinema.