‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ with a substantial runtime of 234 minutes is the first and the last masterpiece of Hu Bo, its writer, director and editor. Soon after completing the film’s post production, Hu Bo committed suicide at the age of 29. Knowing this piece of information made the viewing experience an exhaustive task for me. This review, like all the reviews that exist, is biased. If I hadn’t known that this is Hu Bo’s suicide note, I would have said that this film has too many unnecessary shots of people walking and just looking at each other, that you could cut the runtime in half and still have the same impact on its audience. But now that I know better, I understand how each frame is a cry for help. I apologise in advance if you by extension can only read this review as an introduction to a suicide note.
Set in Hebei, a province in northern China, this film follows the lives of four people from dawn to dusk. Hebei is a place characterised by an overcast sky, dirty snow and actions springing only from economic crises. It’s a place where no one is happy, and people have accepted that life is miserable and it is no one’s fault, it’s just how things are.
In Manzhouli, there sits an elephant in the circus. He doesn’t move, people try to poke him with sticks and offer him food, but he remains unaffected by the worldly actions and sits still.
Wei Bu(played by Peng Yuchang) is the protagonist of this film. He is persistently bullied both at home and school and during a skirmish with the school bully, the bully falls down the stairs. On a run from the bully’s brother Yu Cheng(Zhang Yu), his life changes in an instant as he tries to escape from the clutches of Hebei and his family. Wang Jin(Liu Congxi), an elderly who is being put in a retirement home by his son; and his dog, his last excuse for not shifting, is killed by a vicious dog. Huang Lin(Wang Yuwen) shares a house with her alcoholic, abusive mother and is in an inappropriate relationship with her teacher at school.
All of them think that going to Manzhouli and looking at that elephant will save them from going into a downward spiral. When Wang Jin asks Wei Bu how does looking at an elephant even matter to him, Wei Bu replies that it doesn’t. There exists a hope that going to a new place will not carry over their old sufferings. Every now and then, characters prelude that life is no different at any other place and still, Wei Bu and Yu Cheng keep striving to catch a glimpse of that elephant.
Spanning over approximately 4 hours, Hu Bo doesn’t let go of grief for a single moment. At the core of the film, pronounced by perfect score, is a will to not go any further and yet to refute that instinct everytime. Majority of shots are either hand-held closeups which show how helpless the characters are, or long shots that aggravate that helplessness by showing a glimpse of Hebei. In the scene where Wang Jin’s dog is killed, the camera solely focuses on Wang’s face and we don’t realise what is going on lest we imagine by the assistance of the background sound. Hu Bo relies greatly on the audience’s power of imagination and thinking, so much so that we are always predicting the next scene and the film gives you ample time to do so.
It is a relief when 3.5 hours into the film, you see the first smile on screen. Of course, the happiness is short-lived and you know that even when they are smiling, the spiral to doom is tightening. Side note: I can watch the film again just for that one smile from Yu Cheng.
Hu Bo revealed his heart wounds to the world without any reservations. He made the film pleading with people to feel what he feels. The technical side of the film is flawless, each shot complimenting the mood of the scene but that’s not why this piece of cinema will be relevant for ages. What makes it a masterpiece is the beacon of hope interwoven with all the agony of existing. Everyone wants to be helped, everyone wants a way out. You need to believe that the 25-hour ride from Hebei to Manzhouli is the only thing standing between you and happiness.
Hu Bo wanted to live and this film is a testament to that.