An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China, 2018)

No light at the end

With a running time of nearly four hours (full disclosure: I did it in two sessions), Bo Hu’s directorial feature debut, and his last film, is a gruelling, grim near masterpiece. Bo committed suicide, aged 29, before the film was released and as scriptwriter and editor, it’s clearly his vision which if it isn’t quite nihilist certainly borders on it. It’s unlikely that the awards the film garnered would have encouraged Bo to prolong his stay but his talent has been wasted.

Its realist camerawork, constantly (except for the final shot) handheld with natural lighting only (taking a Dogme95 edict to the letter), portrays a day in the life of four characters all of whom are having a bad time. The lighting means there is, fittingly, little of beauty in the film; though the above still is an exception. In addition, it’s not always easy to see what’s happening and the almost-guerilla style filmmaking on the street often necessitates a low angle, medium shot behind a walking character to avoid seeing the immediate environment in detail; even then one bystander can be seen waving at the camera. So aesthetically there is some frustration, however the impact of the narrative and superb performances (Wang Yuwen, Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu and Wang Jin) make this a film worth suffering through.

The setting is an unnamed city in North East China and, hopefully, Bo chose the shittiest areas to shoot because it looks like hell on earth and its inhabitants deserve to live there. Of course, the latter isn’t true as living conditions, both actual and social, have a massive influence on personality. It reminded me Jia Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wuwhich was banned in China on release as it gave such a negative representation of the country; An Elephant Sitting Still tops it by some degree! From a western perspective, at least, much of what we see is shocking: a boy is injured at school but the Vice Principal refuses to call the police as he says the family will take their own retribution. Nobody, and that’s nobody, is nice to anybody else, with one exception of a loyal friend and that doesn’t end well; the housing is dreadful; I could go on. The cross cutting narratives resemble a soap opera as does the family conflict that intensifies any TV drama grief ten-fold.

Taking the film as a distinct representation of a desperate worldview, it is a superb rendition of hopelessness. Hence the title, the story of the elephant in a nearby zoo, who sits and won’t move, appears throughout the film. The elephant, it seems, has given up; the film’s characters don’t but it seems they might as well do so.

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