An Elephant Sitting Still | Da Xiang Xi Di Er Zuo (2018)

June 1st, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Hu Bo; Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi, Ling Zhenghui, Zhnag Xialong; China 2018, 230 min.

Written, directed and edited by the Chinese director Hu Bo, his award-winning debut is an immersive masterpiece and also his  last film: he committed suicide at the age of just 29, just before the end of shooting.

The action takes place during a single suspenseful day, from dawn to dusk, where the train to the Northern Chinese city of Manzhouli is about to depart. The only noticeable feature in this miserable backwater is an elephant, who, according to rumour, simply sits and watches the world go by.

The symbolic creature draws all sort of people from the surrounding villages: There is young Wei (Yuang), abused by his venal father who father lost his job for taking bribes. Wei’s friend Li (Zhenghui) is accused by Yu (Xiaolong) of stealing his mobile ‘phone. But Li protests his innocence, and Wei defends him. At school, Yu corners the two boys on a staircase and Wei is seriously injured after a scuffle.

This is a community on its knees and at each other’s throats, forced into crime and misdemeanour by harsh economic circumstances. The sins of the parents are meted out on their kids. Wei is in love with Huang (Yuwen) but her troubled mother has projected her own fears onto the young woman causing problems for them both, and Huang to cheat on Wei with the vice-dean of the school whose luxury apartment seems to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of city.

Their secret relationship has been outed by Li, whose phone images of Huang and the teacher, have now gone viral on the internet. The teacher throws Huang out of his flat, blaming her for jeopardising his career. At home Huang is hassled by the teacher’s wife who accuses her of ruining her marriage. And so it goes on, a series of interconnected stories of misery, mistrust and pain all gracefully crafted. A poetic epilogue sees Wang, his granddaughter, Huang and Wei at the station: their train to Manzhouli has been cancelled, forcing them to take several replacement buses to their destination.

Unfolding like one of Balzac’s novels from La Condition Humaine, Hu Bo keeps the narrative going, always finding new angles, plot lines and twists. Everything is elegantly elliptical as the main protagonists meet again and again under new circumstances, completely out of their control. They are always in motion, the city providing a beguiling backdrop to their rat-like existence. In their alienated indolence the young become victims of their elders, who prove poor role models.

Chao Fan’s camera pans relentlessness over the sordidness of it all, tracking the protagonists through the minefield of misdemeanours, like a prowling beast. Even Bela Tarr, always on the lookout for a backdrop of utter desolation, would be impressed by the machinations of Elephant; and there are shades of the Hungarian director’s Werckmeister Harmonies in the the lack of substantial interplay between these characters who glide through the swamp of the city without finding an identity: nothing sticks to them, as they drowning in the quagmire. Fan’s delicately rendered camerawork leaves a great deal to the imagination: the background often distorted in a filmic milkyway. And most impressive of all, we never notice the substantial running time: Hu Bo invites us to live with these characters, and we become part of their world.

A monumental undertaking, to be remembered as a part of film history and with utter regret for being Hu Bo’s sole feature output. A team of China’s FIRST Film Festival, who co-funded Elephant, finished the saga of despair and alienation the way Hu Bo had envisaged it. Elephant won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival (Forum section) along with a string of awards at Festivals all over the world including The Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, Asia’s equivalent to the Oscars. The copyright of An Elephant Sitting Still is now with his parents. AS

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