An Elephant Sitting Still (2019)
Written & Directed by Hu Bo
For four hours, we follow a quartet of people through the bleak, washed-out industrial landscape of northern China. Their stories are not exclusively experienced by the Chinese people but are suffering humanity feels across the globe, particularly those living in the husk of communities hollowed out of unfeeling powers that exist in an abstraction that leads to ennui. How can you do anything about inter-generational pain that comes from a source so distant and seems so endless? This is what our four protagonists struggle with as their lives intersect and converge.
Wei Bu is a teenage student living with a father who has become embittered by an injury and firing from his job. Huang Ling is a fellow classmate living with a mother that uses alcohol to escape the mire of using her body to get ahead at work. Wang Jin is an older man, pressured by his daughter to move to a nursing home so they can have more room in the apartment. Yu Cheng is a man having an affair with his friend’s wife facing the consequences of that decision. Their four lives exist separately, but throughout the film, brush lightly and eventually end up all knotted up.
An Elephant Sitting Still was written & directed by Hu Bo, a Chinese novelist who took his own life at the age of 28 just before this film was released. He based the film on his novel Huge Crack, and Hu was a student of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr. This film is very reminiscent of the slow, ponderous nature of Tarr’s work, and the director penned a letter describing his heartbreak after seeing the movie. It was the moment he indeed came to terms with Hu being gone. The film is a very personal contemplation on the seeming never-ending sludge that life can be, from childhood into old age.
The violence and cruelty present in the film are no longer kept behind closed doors, it has become a systemic nightmare. The adults, whom Western cultures might expect to be some of the voices of hope, have all succumbed to hopelessness. They are the ones who assure the two young characters that life is just this; it never gets better and to toil is to exist. Wang Jin is never so blunt as to try and lift up Bu and Ling’s spirits, but he gently speaks to them.
They are all obsessed with the story they have heard about an elephant in the zoo in a distant city. The animal has become so passive that locals have become confused. People poke the creature with forks and watch in shock as it does nothing. As the film unfolds and the characters individually decide they want to escape and see this fabled elephant, it becomes clear that the animal represents something they feel a need to confront. The elephant could be the cultural misery embedded, passive, and uncaring about additional pain heaped on it. They want to face the image to come terms with their own inner torment.
Everyone in this world is focused on their own personal satiation. To reach out and help, another would be an act of vulnerability. Others would see that compassion as weakness and take you down violently and quickly. Love is presented in a much more realistic manner than you see in most major studio films. It is a beautiful thing, but it can also be harmful. Loving someone can lead to them betraying and hurting you, as we see in the opening sequence where Yu Cheng is caught in the bedroom of his friend with his wife. Young Huang Ling is in a relationship with the vice-dean at her school, it hasn’t become sexual yet, but it is clear the adult man wants to bring it there. She feels no connection to her mother, and her father is never seen, later said to be thousands of miles away. The vice-dean takes advantage of the girl seeking out some form of love, and then she comes to terms with how she was used.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a beautiful and heartbreaking movie, an experience that you have to be mentally ready for. There are long, languorous takes, reminiscent of Terrence Malick, the camera following behind a character as they navigate a decrepit city. The infrastructure is broken down around them, the political powers exist unseen but wielding a potent pen by shutting schools down in a single swipe. If you have found yourself in the last few years having an inability to imagine what the world will be like five years from, a decade from now or further, then Hu Bo shared your pain. There is a subtle moment of hope, in the end, broken up by the sharp trumpet of an elephant in the darkness.