Bold, engaging and perceptive, Hu Bo shines a harsh spotlight on those who do not benefit from China's rapid industrialisation.
A run time of nearly four hours may sound strenuous for a film, but An Elephant Sitting Still makes every second count. Through poignant long takes and a blueish-grey atmosphere, we see four characters become gradually worn down by their circumstances over the course of one day. In his first film, director Hu Bo shows a brutally honest portrayal of the people left behind to feel the brunt of a city suffering from economic despair.
Everyone in this film is struggling to cope but Hu Bo focuses on four people in particular. Wei Bu is a high school student on the run after being blamed for the death of the school bully. Another student, Huang Ling is involved in an affair with the vice dean which becomes leaked online. Yu Cheng is a depressed hoodlum sent to teach Wei Bu a lesson while a grandfather is being placed into a nursing home by his family who plan to move to a better location. As their problems unravel, a shallow depth of field is consistently used to drown out the outside world, even those supposedly close to them. The noises are hardly blocked out however, and with the despondent looks on each of the characters’ faces, Hu Bo suggests all of this is just a daily routine for them.
The camera takes a documentary-style approach as it follows each of the characters. Where we may traditionally see a cut, the scenes keep rolling, capturing the slightest of movements. On top of this, plenty of closeups are used provide an intimate look as we see each character go through a torrent of different feelings. Despite the abundance of closeups, the camera is never intrusive. This remains true in even the most violent of scenes. Sometimes we see the camera turns away, allowing audiences to intuit what follows. For a camera that usually takes an impartial stance, there are times an active attempt is given to provide dignity and respect for the most dreadful of events.
Alongside long takes, there are long silences. The screenplay incorporates lengthy pauses to highlight the apathy present in this city as egoists shame and chip away at the less financially fortunate. Coupled alongside the ambient noises consisting of traffic, construction work and other citizens, we see how seemingly insignificant the hardships of the four characters appear to their surroundings. The soundtrack is used sparingly as if to close off scenes like chapters in a novel. There are times where the film breaks away from this however, such as the montage through the dimly lit nursing home with expressionless elderly and retired residents. This scene in particular serves as a chilling glimpse of the future that befalls those who no longer serve a purpose in society.
With all the suffering on display, the eponymous elephant provides a potential escape for the characters. As Yu Cheng states in a voiceover, there is an elephant that sits all day and ignores everything around it. This tale is bizarre as stillness is never granted in this film. Though simultaneously, the presence of the elephant’s story is somewhat wishful and optimistic in the midst of the chaos that permeates this presentation of urban China.
An Elephant Sitting Still, directed by Hu Bo, is distributed in the UK by New Wave Films.