An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo)

China (2018) Dir. Hu Bo

The world is not a nice place at the moment, a sad but true fact which haunts us all on a daily basis. Many have their own ways of dealing with it – some face it head on with varying degrees of success, others concede to the dog eat dog mentality and join the darker forces, whilst the easiest for many is simply to run away.

Four lives in Jingxing County are about to become unwittingly intertwined, linked only by the urban tale of an elephant sitting in a zoo in Manzhouli completely ignoring the world around it. Petty thug Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) feels guilty when his best friend commits suicide in front of him having found out Cheng slept with his wife. Meanwhile, the reign of terror of his school bully younger brother Yu Shuai (Zhang Xiaolong) comes to an end after falling down a flight of stairs during a scuffle with Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang).

Wei Bu decides to run away than face the consequences of Cheng getting his revenge, deciding to head to Manzhouli. Wei asks classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to join him but she is embroiled in an affair with the school’s vice-dean (Xiang Rongdong). To raise money, Wei sells his prized pool cue to pensioner Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), currently pondering his own future as his son and daughter-in-law want to put him in a home.

There is a prevalent, nagging sense of this near four-hour film being a valedictory statement from first time director Hu Bo, every frame is filled with an impending sense of elegiac hopelessness and despair, painted with a pale, dour colour palette. Tragically, the bitter irony of this is that Hu committed suicide shortly the film was completed, aged just 29 making this his first and last cinematic outing.

Knowing this beforehand watching makes An Elephant Sitting Still an uncomfortable, morbid viewing experience – learning about it afterwards frames the film as an epic suicide note, if this really was the case. Any film with such a long run time will seem like a daunting prospect to sit through, especially arthouse cinema. Some directors are able to make every second vital to the story, like Sion Sono’s Love Exposure or Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy; Hu Bo is closer to Tsai Ming-liang in taking his time and filming everything even if it is nothing.

A lot of what drives the main cast to want to runaway is the selfishness of others and how easy a solution it is. Wei Bu wants to save being killed in revenge for Yu Shuai, Cheng wants to escape the guilt of his best friend’s suicide, Wang Jin resents going into a home just because a closer catchment area will help his granddaughter’s schooling, and Huang Ling is keen to avoid public humiliation.

Shot in natural light, the grey shadowy veneer instantly denotes a melancholic tone that barely lets up – even in the broad daylight, the air is thick with an ominous atmosphere from the dreary cloudless sky. That every character is flawed in some way or a victim of other’s selfish ways paints a morose picture of a community that happiness forgot, as nary a smile is seen here.

But the darkness isn’t limited to the aesthetic – Wei Bu’s friend carries a gun belonging to his father as protection but would rather hide behind Wei, explaining how he is forced to stand up to Yu Shuai instead. The actual cause of the fateful tussle reveals a home truth about Wei’s father, pressing two of Wei’s red buttons in one go, yet he is still the bad guy in this scenario with Shuai’s bullying seemingly a non-issue in the wake of his injuries.

The suicide of Cheng’s best friend borders on the comical the way he simply takes a running leap off the balcony (off camera), yet any remorse felt by Cheng and his newly widowed lover is about the death and not the affair. But Cheng has already resigned himself to being a career scumbag and is only seeking revenge for his brother out of duty, a distraction from revealing how shaken he is by his friends suicide.

Redemption is not what anybody seeks in this scenario, though few deserve it. Some are victims of their own folly as much as the actions of those embroiled in it, illustrating the sad truth that self-preservation is always top priority. When one person does try to fix the trouble they’ve caused they only make it worse, but would the outcome have been any different if the truth had been told at the very beginning?

For a story about running away, it concludes that this isn’t always going to guarantee that all problems will disappear – if anything, it will simply present a new set of problems just in a new location. In other words, they are all trapped by their own guilt, actions, selfishness, or pride wherever they go, so maybe toughing it out is the best option in wiping the slate clean.

After almost four-hours of inert meandering and drawn out, angsty, cod-philosophy, the closing scenes are a huge comedown, almost separate from the rest of the film, that seems to resolve very little, even with its enigmatic denouement. Had it come after 90-minutes or so, maybe it would have sat a little better but pushing the four-hour mark makes it even harder to accept as a satisfactory conclusion.

I have no doubts I personally would have warmed to An Elephant Sitting Still had Hu Bo listened to the producers and cut the run time in half as its greatness would have shone through more brightly. Others will undoubtedly get more from the languid presentation and ponderous atmosphere than I did; however, the biggest shame is that we will never get to see where Hu Bo would have taken us next. It’s rare such a poignant debut is also a tragic swan song.