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An Elephant Sitting Still began with a myth — and ended up becoming a myth itself. Revolving around four characters shaken out of their small town stupor by an enigmatic tale about a lethargic pachyderm, the film attained instant cult status among critics at the Berlinale, where it premiered in the Forum sidebar, because of the suicide of its 29-year-old novelist-turned-director Hu Bo last October.
Finished by a team convened by China’s FIRST Film Festival, the event where Hu presented his project and secured backing from famed auteur Wang Xiaoshuai in July 2016, Elephant has taken on another layer of mystique because of its daunting, nearly four-hour running time — a cut which reportedly drove a wedge between the first-time director and his producers. (The name of Wang’s production company has since disappeared from the credits, with film rights now retained by Hu’s parents.)
Beyond all this, however, Elephant isn’t exactly the film maudit suggested by the difficult circumstances from which it emerged. Long and a bit unwieldy, and self-consciously philosophical in parts, yes, but Hu’s first (and sadly last) feature weaves together its narrative threads clearly and sturdily.
Influenced by European art house icons such as Krzysztof Kieslowski and Bela Tarr — specifically the latter’s Werckmeister Harmonies, in terms of its fatalistic premise and omnipresent tracking shots — Elephant provides proof of Hu’s promise as a thoughtful filmmaker. The movie stands as a memorial to a young talent who burned out too soon, and a much-merited run on the festival circuit is the least he deserves.
Set during a single day in a humdrum northern Chinese city, the story revolves around four people whose lives have reached a dead end. Hoodlum Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) witnesses his best friend, whose wife he has slept with, jump from a window to his death. Already tormented by his brutish father at home, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) runs off after pushing a school bully down a staircase. His classmate and crush, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), is dating the married vice-principal to forget her angst about her mother. And the pensioner Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) silently despairs as his son tries to pack him off to a nursing home.
As they squirm in seemingly different, but similarly doomed, circumstances, they pin their hopes for salvation on a story they hear about an elephant in the far-north Chinese outpost of Manzhouli. The animal, as the story goes, sits in a zoo and refuses to eat or move, as if trying to deny its own existence; for the four characters, this seems to echo their own alienated existence.
Slowly and surely, Hu’s screenplay brings these four lonely people into each other’s orbit through sufficiently convincing coincidences. Miserable they may be, but they draw empathy as the story shows how they are simply the consequence of an oppressive society weighed down by cynicism across generations and class.
Admittedly, Elephant is a heavy affair, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Hu’s characters remain very real, and they are never shown as indulgent to the point of being above the banalities of everyday life. Barbed humor abounds, too, in matter-of-fact dialogue.
With his lenser Fan Chao, Hu uses clever framing, close-ups and focal depth both to obscure things he doesn’t want to show, like the mauling of old man Wang’s beloved dog, and to highlight his characters’ alienation from the people and events around them. One can’t help speculating on what the future holds for these characters, just as it’s tempting to wonder what direction the filmmaker might have taken had he lived to tell the tale.
Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuchang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi
Director-screenwriter-editor: Hu Bo
Director of photography: Fan Chao
Production designer: Xie Lijia
Music: Hua Lun
Sound designer: Bai Ruizhou
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
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