“He told me the other day, there is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long. Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks. Or maybe it just enjoys sitting there. I don’t know.”
An Elephant Sitting Still is a grand tapestry of a film, a four-hour long living breathing monster that makes one proud to appreciate cinema. Its very existence is soaked through with sorrow of the most merciless kind, as one seldom mentions An Elephant Sitting Still without touching upon the passing of its writer/director, Hu Bo, who took his own life shortly after completing the film at just 29 years old. It would forever be his first and only effort, an effort that sadistically taunts you with the empty promise of what he seemed destined to achieve in his life. Perhaps a filmography of sharp, aesthetically gratifying and beautifully eye-gouging films like this one, of which there would be nothing else alike on the beautiful big screen. We will never know, what is known is that cinema is a much darker place without him.
The camera is alive in this story, almost constantly moving with and around our hapless characters. Anticipating, as we do, what unpleasantness will be arriving shortly in the grimness of their lives; when the already screaming tension is pushed beyond its limit. Refusing to cut back and forth, preferring to glide as long unbroken takes from one despairing fall to the next, we are treated to a washed out world in which people are searching for an escape. Normal every-day occurrences are the problems our characters face here, dilemmas, ultimatums, situations many of us will recognise from our own lives, the kind that can seem inescapable; and are therefore capable of terrifying us in cinema.
This is a slow, meditative piece, the tone is almost cruel, making use of a musical score that sounds both hopeful and hopeless all at the same time, the colour scheme is miserable and the story is relentless in its emotional tragedy. And yet, you will not leave empty handed in the desperate search for something-anything that could offer hope, as An Elephant Sitting Still does not wish to beat you over the head with depression, but one cannot have light without there first being darkness, and while the majority of the film is bleak in a way that smashes your glass house to the ground, it represents a flawed succession in finding that escape from the emptiness of existence. Films like this represent something the filmmaker needs to get off their chest, the need to truly express themselves, beyond commercialism and above the need for a return on their years of hard work, Hu Bo wanted to say something, tear his emotions free and in turn – he tore mine.
An Elephant Sitting Still had everything for me, my favourite combination, style and substance, substance dictated by style; there would not be one without the other. The story is expansive and relatable in its persistent and personal assault of meaningful themes, and while the style perpetuates sadness, it is almost fun, as every clear artistic decision implies a filmmaker who loved his craft. There are no pretty pictures or gorgeous landscapes, characters are either bullies or victims, a snowy setting makes for discomfort all the way through and while hope is spread very thin, still it lies before you, at the end of this painful journey, and the result is a majestic piece of work with a very satisfying sensibility to it. I will say that not every line of dialogue felt as unique in its characterisation as though it wasn’t all Hu Bo’s own words, but this is a mere spec in the shadow of what is a monumental achievement, there need to be more films like this out there, for the sake of the integrity of cinema itself.
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