Humans, according to philosopher John Gray, seek silence as an escape from their inner commotion. “By nature volatile and discordant,” Gray writes, “the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” The blissfully silent eponymous animal of Hu Bo’s poignant and stirring four hour film, An Elephant Sitting Still, is the talisman in which the damned characters of the film, all in woeful need of redemption, seek refuge. By the time they finally approach the mythical animal, however, the film has drained us completely of any hope that they will find what they are looking for.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a cinema of despair. The film unfurls over the course of one day in a creeping and cold tapestry of subdued grays, following the protagonist’s bleak peregrinations amongst the rubble-strewn and broken industrial landscape of a small city in northern China. This day starts rather inauspiciously for each of them. Local small-time gangster Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) opens the film in the bed of his best friend’s wife. When the cuckold friend unexpectedly returns home Yu Cheng watches as he tosses himself from the high-rise window in a fit of raging grief. Meanwhile, across town, sixteen-year-old Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is unable to finish his breakfast under the constant assault of his abusive father’s insults and taunts. Wei Bu’s schoolmate, Huang Li (Wang Yuwen), celebrates her birthday morning by arguing with her sozzled and sluggish half-conscious alcoholic mother. Finally, former army man Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) wakes up to learn that his ungrateful son plans to kick him out of the apartment and install him instead in a dilapidated and depressing nursing home. What follows for Yu Cheng, Wei Bu, Huang Li and Wang Jin doesn’t get any better. Theirs is a story of hopelessness expressed in a cheerless Tolstoyan realism only without the redemptive blessings of religion and spirituality.
Despite An Elephant Sitting Still’s preoccupation with disaffection and estrangement, the characters share a desire, arrived at independently, to visit the city of Manzhouli in order to see its fabled elephant. One can understand the attraction. The elephant is said to sit calmly no matter the ruckus of its surroundings. This is a feat the characters are interested in learning about given the furor of their own lives. The journey to Manzhouli then is the goal of the film. It is captured in long takes with tightly controlled yet fluid camerawork by cinematographer Fan Chao. Significant portions of the film, reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s own plodding pachydermic work, are simple steadicam tracking shots following the characters as they trudge about town. Chao employs a desperately small depth of field keeping everything but the main characters severely out of focus so as to isolate them completely from their environment. Often interlocutors are left out of the frame entirely. The result is a languid filmmaking style but never a boring one. Hu Bo is cinematically keen enough to understand just how many outbursts of violence to include in order to maintain the narrative’s buoyancy.
The acting performances, however, do most of the work of keeping this very long and very slow film so thoroughly engaging. The characters of An Elephant Sitting Still are all children of Pankaj Mishra’s ressentiment, frustrated souls suffering under the Schumpeterian destructive maelstroms of global capitalism. As such the film can be read syntopically with Hillbilly Elegy and the burgeoning social science literature of contemporary American deaths of despair. Wei Bu and his cohorts absorb the hard thumps of fate with a stilly forbearance as if their stark experience in this world has robbed them of appropriate emotive responses. There is little love here, only violence, melancholy and throttled rage. It’s an unfortunate existence rendered brilliantly by the film’s actors.
More unfortunate though is that An Elephant Sitting Still appears to have only a limited theatrical run in the United States, playing exclusively at film festivals and select local arthouse theaters. It deserves a wider release equal to its critical acclaim. Hopefully word of mouth and some award wins will get it there. Until then check your local listings. It’s something you should see.