Cultural Bulletin
Exploring Film, Music, Design, Art and the Wider Cultural Themes that Surround Them

In Review: An Elephant Sitting Still

Director: Hu Bo

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During the closing credits of An Elephant Sitting Still, we learn that Chinese director Hu Bo tragically took his own life at 29 years old, shortly after editing, writing and directing this – his only feature-length film. He has left behind a masterwork that is a serious and profound comment on the existential consequences of a broken class system; its bleak realism feels wholly necessary and important.

Adapted from his own short story, the film occurs over one day in the province of Hebei, China, as we follow the lives of four very different characters. All are linked, however, through their narratives - the storylines interweave and collide. Also bound by a deep apathy for the world, they independently seek travel to Manzhouli, where an elephant apparently sits, turning a blind eye to all that is near it. Hu uses this metaphor to pinpoint the only solution they can find: leave and ignore. What is the point of trying anything else?

Along with cinematographer Fan Chao, Hu paints the town with a palate of whites and greys: it is cold, unfriendly and harsh. Using Steadicam, he frequently restricts our focus – blurring out key events happening in the same scene. We are forced to stay with the character he has chosen to direct our attention. His frequent use of extended shots are often viewed from behind people: we see across the back of their head and shoulders. It’s as though we are in a long-form, open world video game.  

All of the actors play their parts with restraint and an efficacious level of detachment. It wouldn’t work any other way. On the rare occasion where emotion does break through, it is never mannered or contrived. Alongside this is the masterful use of a searing instrumental soundtrack from band Hualun which enables those moments to linger and expertly binds the film together.

Considering the themes in An Elephant Sitting Still, the film understandably sounds like it may be difficult to get on with. ‘My life is like a dumpster,’ says one character. ‘The world is a disgusting place,’ states another. Yet, it’s testament to Hu’s clear talents as a director that he is able to keep us invested and concerned by the emotional indifference on show. 

As with all works of such power, the questions that Hu asks are not left completely unanswered. We are challenged to consider for ourselves, how should these people face up to their reality? Revealingly, Hu stated that, ‘the truly valuable things in life lie in the cracks of the world’. Finding truth may mean not turning away. 

Since his suicide, there has been conjecture surrounding the events that lead to it. What is certain, however, is that the film industry has lost an astoundingly promising and gifted young filmmaker. TS