It’s nearly impossible to talk about the Chinese drama AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL without discussing its tragic behind-the-scenes reality. Shortly after finishing the film, Hu Bo, the film’s Director, Writer, and Editor took his own life at the age of 29. It’s his first and last film.
It’s troubling for the obvious reasons – it’s the loss of a tremendously promising young artist, one whose life could’ve seen a remarkable career in cinema (it’s incredibly confident for a debut feature film). To experience the film with this knowledge is to witness a devastatingly honest piece of work.
In the Chinese city of Manzhouli, rumor has it that there is an elephant that simply sits still all day long, ignoring the hardships and pain of the world. The film follows a cast of characters who, over the course of a single day, become intent on traveling to Manzhouli to see the elephant for themselves.
Among the characters is Wei Bu, a school student who finds himself in trouble after accidentally pushing the school bully, Yu Shuai, down the stairs. Wei’s classmate, Huang Li, has an inappropriate relationship with the school’s deputy dean and constantly bickers with her mother at home.
Yu Shuai’s older brother, Yu Cheng, struggles with the guilt of sleeping with his friend’s wife, which ultimately leads to his friend committing suicide. Lastly, Wang Jin is an elderly man whose daughter and son-in-law want to abandon him in a nursing home.
At a staggering 234 minutes (just shy of 4 hours), it only seems appropriate to label Ho Bu’s film as an epic, though there’s an undeniable intimacy to be found, especially given how much time the viewer spends with these characters. Each character faces a unique dilemma, yet they each manage to thematically coexist in a world that’s as believable as it is dreary. Make no mistake: AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL is heavy. The cast of characters is a miserable bunch, often meditating their existence. Long, slow takes ensure that the viewer is able to become engrossed in the drama, both verbal and non-verbal.
Despite the mind-boggling running time, it manages to feel purposeful. Though there are moments when the camera seems to linger a bit longer than necessary, it’s an accomplishment that the running time seems justifiable in the first place. The sequence of events is organic, carefully building each scene upon the next to form a narrative that’s relatively straightforward, but matched with serious emotional and thematic weight.
Visually, the film offers a drab, moody color palette that matches the tone to create a melancholic experience. It’s immediately relatable to anyone who has felt the urge to escape their hometown in search of a better life. The score on display is an offering of minimalist electronic melodies. Music is sparse throughout but gorgeously utilized, adding a new personality to the film.
AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL is not likely to be viewed more than once by most audiences. It’s a truly sad, long experience. But patience yields rewarding results for viewers willing to take the journey. It was a journey that deeply moved this writer and will certainly do the same for others.
AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL made its world premiere in the Forum section of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. It was released in the United States on March 8, 2019.