Without producers, investors and the like being in existence, cinema would probably be filled with four hour plus films from directors working without any restriction. If the quality of work coming out of Netflix shows anything it is that creative freedom is sometimes an overrated quality. Yet, try telling that to filmmakers like Bela Tarr (see Sátántangó) or Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History). There aren’t many directors who boldly announce their arrival with a 230 minute debut film, and yet unfortunately it will also be Chinese director Bo Hu's last.
An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo) debuted at Berlinale earlier this year, four months after Hu tragically committed suicide at the age of 29. This would usually make reviewing his work complex enough, but the film itself feels so deeply imbued with his state of mind that it makes criticism something of a minefield. Bo's film leaves no doubt that he was a director of huge promise, and the novelist-turned-director left behind a hard-hitting and punishing view of modern day China.
The film is based on a story featured in Bo’s 2017 novel, Huge Crack, following four characters during a single day in a depressed and gloomy looking northern Chinese city. Teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is weighed down by the economic strife faced by his parents. A confrontation at school sees him held responsible for hospitalising a bully after pushing him down the stairs, causing him to go on the run from the boy’s older, local thug brother, Yu Cheng (Wang Jin).
60-year-old Jin (Liu Congxi) lives in the same housing block and is facing up to the prospect of being moved to a nursing home so his son’s family can find some much needed room at home. Bu’s classmate, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), is trying to cope with the discovery of an affair with the Dean of their school. Along with Cheng, the school authorities and Bu’s parents are all hot on his trail, trying to find out where he has disappeared to. Bu, Jin and Ling have long heard of a legend about a circus elephant that remains sitting still, and all three board a bus heading towards Manchuria on a journey of self-discovery.
If that description sounds daunting and heavy-hearted, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Bo’s pessimistic perception of certain sections of Chinese society being left behind by the country’s rapid economic boom offers little respite. The gloomy atmosphere hangs heavy over the heads of his characters and it's a suffocating experience to sit through for such an extended period. A two-hour version of the film was also submitted to some festivals, and there were rumours the producers cut ties due to their unhappiness about a four-hour version representing the finished product.
What elevates An Elephant Sitting Still beyond mere miserablism is the obvious talent displayed behind the camera. Bo’s Steadicam control sees him move effortlessly between characters around the actor's performance space, pushing the frame in close to intimately portray their facial expressions and singular viewpoint of the world. Frequent use of shallow focus crystallises this even further, and we become embedded within their introspection and rundown environments.
Bo's ambition certainly can't be faulted and you can only wonder what he could have gone on to achieve after such a confident debut. That boldness extends into the belief Bo placed in a relatively inexperienced cast who do good work with the material in long takes that would test the mental strength of even the most experienced actors. Everywhere you look in the film Bo is unwilling to provide an escape from his view of the world, and he has left behind a gift many will readily empathise with.
An Elephant Sitting Still opens in select UK cinemas on December 14th 2018.