Director: Hu Bo
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 234 Minutes
A title card follows the final frame dedicating An Elephant Sitting Still to the memory of Hu Bo; the 29-year-old writer and director tragically took his own life shortly after the film was completed. Sadly, this leads one to believe that the young filmmaker was suffering from the coldness of life, much like his characters on screen.
Depression lines the film from beginning to end with a capital ‘D,’ as it runs at nearly four hours and moves at snail-like speed with deep pockets of silence. So often is the work of great artists rooted in their great suffering. Hu Bo’s first and only feature film is fully personal and crafted with such originality, that you would think he had been doing this for years.
In his lifespan, Hu Bo made three short films and wrote two novels. An Elephant Sitting Still is based on one of the short stories of the same name from his 2017 book “Huge Crack.” In this story, a high-school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), accidentally knocks a school bully down a flight of stairs. The bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), is a gang member who sets out to find Wei Bu when he hears the news.
Although it sounds like a crime thriller, it’s far from one. This is more a display of a filmmaker’s pessimistic insight to the cruelty and unfairness of life. That may not strike you as a reason to jump out of your seat and rush to the theater, but it’s a satisfying viewing for the same reason sad music is worth listening to; it conveys a strong emotion with which we can all identify.
Because of its lengthy runtime and slow pace, this will be a hard sit-through for many. But with patience and a receptive attitude, one will come to see true silver-screen art. Hu Bo bravely opposed conventional approaches and methods, forming a 234-minute film, all taking place in just one day, with every scene composed of a single take. There is no excitement, no riveting action and next to zero standout moments. Instead, Hu Bo devises a thorough story soaked in gloom to form an incessant dispiriting mood-piece.
With the absence of edited scenes and shots that basically range from close-up to medium close-up, actors are challenged to perform without breaks. Hu Bo’s actors do not showcase much diversity in their roles, rather their personalities are restrained under an umbrella of melancholy, which helps underscore the temper of the film.
Every character carries either depression or anger. Yu Cheng, the dangerous thug, ironically isn’t one of the angry ones. He’s hurt because the girl he likes, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), doesn’t want him.
Huang Ling is Wei Bu’s classmate who receives nothing but hateful shouts from her ferocious mother at home, similar to the unloving put-downs Wei Bu gets from his father. Bu’s neighbor – and the film’s fourth main character, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) – feels unwanted by his daughter and son-in-law because they want to occupy his house themselves and place him in a nursing home.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs is the only other film I can think of to be such a lethargic downbeat experience, completely void of positivity. Music only plays maybe seven times and for a couple minutes at a time; characters take long, sulking pauses in between dialogue; nobody ever smiles; and everything happening seems to be going wrong.
At times it is tiresome. But the unique manner in which the story develops, revealing important details and intertwining character plots at a slow and steady pace, is unassailable. It takes writing finesse, for example, to keep the audience from realizing how close some characters are until a couple hours into the film, so it comes as no surprise that Hu Bo was a published novelist. His metaphor of a sitting elephant is a hazy one that somehow perfectly fits the story’s depressive tone.
It’s sad to see such a talented artist leave us at such a young age, and it’s remarkable that – with just one film – he had the ability and bravery to grab the cinematic bull by the horns, offer us something fresh and stamp his name onto the list of auteurs.