AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (DA XIANG XI DI ER ZUO) 
With a debut film that clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes, it is safe to say that Hu Bo was confident in his vision: a focused and calculated piece that creates an instantly noticeable visual statement. Bo doesn’t have much hope for his country, his perception and visual creation of modern China is far from flattering. Using the concept of four characters whose paths cross.
This splintered group of four don’t exactly possess deep personalities, but they do all have obvious, basic moral qualities, or lack thereof, which shine brighter than any backstory in a film of this nature. Three of the four characters are young, two high school students and a young man who looks in his late 20’s or early 30’s. The fourth is a much older man, a grandfather of one of the students. All four combine to act as the moving parts of a film that is far more than the political commentary it initially feels like, as each of these four are hurting deeply in varying ways, living within a small town in China, if it could be called a town, far away from any city.
A strangely moving film – it becomes clear that the four main characters aren’t as shallow as it first seems: most of their actions aren’t explained, while nearly every scene involves only one of the four as they wander while trying to figure out where their life is going.
It isn’t long until we realise that these characters’ positive traits contrast sharply with the area that they call home: a crumbling part of China looking more like a demolition zone, as if it has recently been bombed with only the ugly remnants of war remaining. The consistent drab colour palette and general dilapidated state of the unnamed town is a constant due to the way the film is shot.
Taking place almost in real-time, covering a 12-hour period, nearly all of these separate scenes for each character are captured with stunning grace using only a handicam with little to no cuts – that is, until the next scene begins and the next character takes the screen. There is a definite similarity to László Nemes’ Son of Saul as a large chunk of these long takes are shot over a character’s right shoulder as we see the ruins they are seeing, the garbage that is piling up, or we see their face reacting to each situation. The use of focus, or the lack of it, is also used well for opposite reasons, as if to hide exact details, while putting the main character in question in sharp focus, highlighting their selfishness or their tendency to daydream.
What is truly unforgettable about this tour de force of camerawork are the close-ups mentioned: very long, staring into the character, they truly test each actors’ skill given the length of these unbroken, lengthy shots, allowing the actors’ faces to tell a story. Each of the four display their deep talent without fail.
There are no fantastical or bombastic sequences to be found, rather each character goes through a psychological test: that is, to overcome their situations that are represented by the crumbling area they inhabit. The young male, Wei Bu, earns the ire of the young adult Yu Cheng after trying to defend a friend from bullying, leading to drastically unplanned results. Yu Cheng is now searching for Wei, as in the absence of work, he has become the head of a small-time crime syndicate that is one of many parts that make up the ruinous world depicted. Meanwhile, the older gentleman, Wang Jin, is forced out of his offspring’s two bedroom house due to a lack of room and food, despite sleeping on their balcony.
Notably, apart from a few brief scenes involving parents (or the adult offspring of Wang Jin), there is an obvious lack of middle-aged characters, only four confused souls who are trying to make the best of the situations handed to them. A very deliberate choice by the first-time writer/director/editor, as the mostly young characters are lost and unsure which turn to take. They all exhibit an obvious sense of aimlessness and uncertainty, the latter applying to China in many ways from the eyes of ‘millenials’. That issue however is a long, long essay for another day.
The older man’s situation also finds itself serving as another metaphor, as now that his children need him to move out, the only option is to enter an aged-care facility years earlier than appropriate. He feels as if he is losing his dignity, much like he has lost the China he once knew and identified with. He now faces the prospect of feeling stuck in this facility, much like he is stuck in an industrialised, semi-capitalist society that that is foreign to him and far from the China he knew.
Word begins to spread about an ‘Elephant who never moves’, at a zoo in a town to the north. In meticulous fashion, interest in this slowly spreads among all four characters, despite only young student Wei truly believing it. As all four are stuck in an almost dead city, their lives becoming harder while simultaneously losing meaning, the possibility of a elephant standing still calls to them. If something that large can stay inanimate, perhaps it could put their problems in perspective, to keep these issues from metastasising and haunting them. Unfortunately , no one knows anything certain. And so, only the possibility of an odd, symbolic type of closure remains, in a town that the train does not travel to.
So why go to look for something that may not exist, in a difficult place to reach? There is no answer, but surely at least a hundred symbolic/metaphorical reasons. Perhaps the inanimate giant is China itself, the biggest country in the world that in many regards isn’t moving forward, while rapidly doing so elsewhere, principally in big cities.
Whether there is a meaning, or it is simply a giant, lazy animal that is an anomaly among other elephants, no one has a cent of certainty as to whether the zoo exists, not to mention a frozen elephant. And ultimately, it seems this is what lies at the film’s core. Complete and utter uncertainty, one of humanity’s most horrid feelings. Worse though is feeling this way while the home around you is devoid of hope.
The final scenes are very much open to interpretation, and unexpectedly, the first credit after the final scene is that the film is dedicated to the director himself, as not long after the film was finished, he took his own life.
Perhaps this film is far from fiction, rather a suicide note detailing why he took his life at only 29. Regardless, a debut feature of such scope, at such a young age, is a remarkable achievement, and it is a tragedy that this talent’s suicide is essentially the end of the film. Astonishing and unforgettable, it is easily one of the best movies of 2019.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Hu Bo.