Richie Tenenbaum put it best: “Of course it’s dark, it’s a suicide note.” Completed shortly before he took his own life in 2017, “An Elephant Sitting Still” will forever be Hu Bo’s first and only feature film, his legacy condensed into 234 minutes — everything he stood for as an artist trapped within a single torpid impressionist work of pure agony.
Set over the course of a murky-gray day in an equally gray city in China, “An Elephant Sitting Still” follows the interwoven tales of Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) and Wang Jin (Congxi Li). Equally battered by life, the trio is entirely aware of the fact that they were born into dead ends, destined to be forgotten among the unremarkable individuals they share walls with in their low-income residencies. Whether it’s Wei Bu proclaiming “the world is a wasteland” or Yu Cheng admitting his “life is like a dumpster,” they feel there is no escaping that they are nonpersons doomed to oblivion. It’s a morbid idea that lingers every scene, every word spoken and every face displayed on screen.
Opting to showcase the distance between the characters rather than their connectedness, Bo spends time tracking the lonely ramblings of his main players rather than their sporadic encounters. It is these raw moments of dejected intimacy that “An Elephant Sitting Still” thrives on, as each actor takes the time to properly express the solemnity of silence. They carry faces of paradoxical shame and indifference, entirely apathetic of how others perceive them, all the while entirely shamefaced by the insignificance of their being. Beyond their few meetings over the lengthy film, these Geminian faces seem to be the only irrefutable commonality amongst the trio, a face of torment that clashes with the image of the blissfully ignorant elephant sitting still with nothing to do that they all long to see.
Unfortunately, the elephant resides in the inner Mongolian region of Manzhouli and the characters are unable to visit it for they are stuck in an inner-city complex in Hebei. Death is closer than Manzhouli and mustering the courage to leave everything behind in order to experience bliss alongside an idle elephant seems like too much work for what will realistically just end up being exposure to a new set of sufferings in a foreign land. Whether they aimlessly walk their streets or dawdle somewhere despite having nowhere to go, they’re bound to learn something along the way so long as they keep moving. But walking and learning at the same time is tiring; thus why the image of an inert elephant and its blissful ignorance is so appealing.
We’re prone to find something if we keep moving. The question is if the pain of saunter and thought is worth it or whether it would just be easier to stop. “An Elephant Sitting Still” sits with that question for four hours and never reaches a conclusion, to haunt your mind and make you reflect on the time you’ve spent viewing it. By the end, you are left with an epic of intimacy that opens the hearts of its hopeless characters before the world, displaying the gnarliness of their atriums and slothful pumping of their arteries in an attempt to convey the brokenness of their hearts — before they cease to be.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Email Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]