Is there an elephant in the city?
Revisiting An Elephant Sitting Still — the first and last film from its writer and director Hu Bo and why it’s a masterpiece of urban slow cinema
An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) is the first and last film from its writer and director Hu Bo. It is a masterpiece of urban slow cinema telling the loosely connected tales of characters obsessed by leaving behind their current existence in Shijiazhuang in pursuit of the northern Chinese city of Manzhouli.
Here, they say, is an elephant that simply sits still and ignores the world. Some say it is a real elephant that lives in a zoo, some believe it is only a parable suggesting the best way to survive life is to simply ignore it and let it pass by.
Whatever form we believe this elephant takes — a Buddha figure or a stand in for the lonely in society — it becomes both an obsession and a means of escape for the film’s central characters.
Schoolboy Bu gets caught between his aggressive invalid father and his best friend’s trouble with the school bully. This bully has an older brother, Cheng, a lowly street rat, who moves from one empty relationship to the next — one is Bu’s classmate Ling, and another is being caught with his best friend’s wife, which leads to his friend dying by suicide.
After realising Cheng and her are nothing alike, Ling is torn between a troubling push and pull relationship with her volatile but hardworking mother and an unsettling relationship with the Vice Dean of their crumbling, soon to be torn down school.
Army veteran Mr Wang is the final main character who is too shaky to be trusted to be left alone with his granddaughter and has been told he, and his beloved dog, needs to move into a home so that his son’s family can move to a better area for their young daughter’s schooling.
In lengthily, ethereal Steadicam shots, the camera follows these characters super close from behind — more closely than their shadows — less a representation of their lingering life, but a realisation of the close proximity of the trail of death beckoning forth from behind.
Hu follows his characters during the course of one day. We spend lengthy scenes with characters before they drop away and we pick up almost in media res with another character. At first it is disorientating to pick out a plot through this story that is being told. We see characters at home, clashing with family members in constricted and crumbling apartments, and follow them as they traverse across a city, while the hostile streets lead to violent altercations that are as inescapable as the mountains of uncollected stinking trash piled up on every corner.
It’s a quiet yet truly heavy film. Light leaches from almost every scene, leaving a city of mid-tones, almost black and white, as if the absence of colour mirrors the lack of — or stillness — or slowness of life. This blue-grey matches the colour of elephants and they do say an elephant never forgets.
Characters walk around like zombies. They rarely seem aware of one another. And even when they are, they are almost mute, emotionless, frozen. No one smiles or laughs for its entire four hour running time. Their actions makes you repeatedly want to reach out and grab them, to make them turn around, to make better decisions. But they appear to be drones moving from the hive and back, with no hint of honey on the horizon.
It’s frustrating as a viewer to see them walk so slowly to their doom. They spend a lot of time walking but often without intent. Their purpose is to simply move on, to escape standing still and to be found out in some way — whether it is because of their lies and deception, adulatory, shame, or simply wanting to go before they are pushed.
These characters — this city — these circling lives, can never forget their past, their present and especially their future. The Vice Dean tells Ling during a moment alone, “Life won’t just get better. That agony had begun since you were born”.
The film’s major theme is life is garbage; it won’t get any better, only worse. “My life is like a dumpster. Garbage keeps piling up,” mutters one character early in the film.
This leads to a very claustrophobic viewing experience. Amidst the stench and smog of the city and the tightness of how shots are framed, as an audience we are starved of air to breathe. The dominance of facial close-ups and extensive use of shallow focus keeps the surroundings indistinct most of the time, which produces an uncomfortable sense of intimacy that reflects the characters’ self-absorption and lack of perspective.
Ambient sounds are drained from the picture — birds, traffic noise and garbled background speech aside. Train lines run around the edges of the city, but they hardly ever seen as a mode of escape, more a looping taunt to a loss of potential freedom.
So when music does break the silence, thanks to a wonderfully minimal post-rock score by Hua Lun, it not only functions as exit points between lengthy story vignettes but also helps engineers the film’s few moments of emotional catharsis, for both the characters and us as audience.
These characters do interrelate in their own way, but not in any magical twisting way that marks the moment of a great epiphany — it shares very little with the passing trend of interconnecting stories as seen in Crash, Traffic, Magnolia, 21 Grams et al. Everyone is connected to each other by their own pain and loss and this same pain and loss drives them apart again almost to breaking point. Death is not just around the edges, it’s in between all the cracks too. Accidental death, death from old age, suicide, the loss of a dear pet — and remember, all this is just in one day in their lives.
There are efforts for these characters to change, but so often this effort is met with greater obstacles and even worse outcomes. Bu stands up for his best friend, believing he is innocent of a theft, but this stand only leads to a chain reaction of worsening scenarios for himself. And for most of these scenarios they are largely accepted with a staunch nihilist attitude. Moments of emotional and spiritual relief are very sparse, such as when Bu screams out in pain to a passing train on the horizon.
This is Hu Bo’s only film and will be forever. He died of suicide after completing An Elephant Sitting Still. The conclusion of this project was mired by a wrangle with financiers over its epic four hour running time. If ever a four-hour film doesn’t feel like a four-hour film, it is this one. It’s very long, it’s very slow, it’s very quiet, but this makes it all the more powerful. It is a mighty achievement. A wonder of melancholy, with perhaps just a glimpse of hope ahead on the horizon.
The film ends with three of the main characters getting their wish and visiting Manzhouli. After missing the last train, Mr Wang tells Bu and Ling,
“You can go wherever you want. Yes, you can. However, you’ll find nothing different. I learned this when I’ve wasted most of my life away.”
But Bu convinces Mr Wang to join him and Ling anyway, just to take a look.
Bu’s best friend may end his involvement in the story with the stark words, “This world is disgusting,” which Bu almost certainly agrees with, but where the difference lies is that Bu still wants to try, whether this is because he still holds on to a modicum of hope, or whether life is so bad it can’t possible get any worse, we will never know.
Bo then shows us them getting off a coach in the middle of the night. We are finally out of the city. We have escaped the suffocating close ups and are treated to a wide shot of them being surrounded by a big night sky. This jump to space and the infinite nature of the sky seems to suggest a slither of freedom for these characters. This is echoed by an almost miraculous moment of magical realism. A miracle that could symbolise hope for their future, or perhaps simply a pause in their pain to allow their hearts to catch up with a continued absence.
An Elephant Sitting Still was based on Hu Bu’s own 2017 novel Huge Crack. The film was released to critical claim and went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay and the Audience Award at the Golden Horse Awards in 2018.