Directed by Hu Bo | China | 230 mins.
A work of tremendous emotional power and enormous ambition, An Elephant Sitting Still is both the debut and, tragically, the final feature film by filmmaker and novelist Hu Bo, who took his own life at the age of twenty-nine during postproduction. Having studied under the great Béla Tarr, Hu demonstrates some common affinities with the Hungarian master, as testified to by both the presiding sense of desolation as well as an affinity for lengthy tracking shots, though Hou’s approach is grounded in realistic naturalism, a rougher aesthetic, and a unique specificity regarding spiritual disconsolations underpinning quotidian struggles in contemporary China. Set in a crumbling urban outpost in the country’s north-east, An Elephant Sitting Sill tells the intersecting stories of four characters united through mishap and misadventure as they struggle to transcend their condition of alienation, uniting in a quixotic effort to visit the eponymous elephant of the title, a figure of mythic impassivity. Though a film about characters at risk of being crushed by their circumstances, and hardly an optimistic vision, Hu’s film demands finally to be appreciated as a study in human resilience, the tragedy of its director’s abbreviated life notwithstanding.
- Written by Jason Wierzba