An Elephant Sitting Still (4 stars)

An Elephant Sitting Still

Epic and intense Chinese drama from the late Hu Bo

This epic and mesmerising Chinese film depicts society as a selfish and poisonous wasteland in its pursuit of materialistic wealth. It asks the viewer to spend dawn to dusk with four citizens who have been discarded in some way due to economic constraints, and who head to Manzhouli at their lowest ebb to see a mythical elephant who simply ignores the world. Sure, it's packed full of sorrow and several generations of people who have lost hope, but it captures the enduring sadness with such beauty and in such a skilful and imaginative manner it's difficult to write it off as pure miserabilism.

Teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is sick of the school bully and ends up in an altercation which lands the boy in hospital. He flees in fear of the bully's elder brother Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu), who is coming after him whilst dealing with the fallout following the suicide of his best friend, who caught him in an affair with his wife. Soon enough Bu's friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is drawn into the drama due to her sad home life, and the elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) joins this collective after he's told he will be placed in a nursing home by his family. Everyone is teetering on the edge of despair and director Hu Bo's camera follows suit by dangerously peeking over precipices.

Hu's debut is also his swansong, as the novelist-turned-director tragically committed suicide after completing this film at the age of 29. It has traces of the masterful work of Jia Zhangke, following its characters through huge emotional arcs depicted in intense long-takes. A runtime of nearly four hours may put some people off but there's elegance and poetry in the way Hu portrays his characters' routines and their longing for escape. He scratches away at turmoil and decaying surroundings to reveal motivations, drawing sympathy for his protagonists' desperate situations as their pain scorches the screen.

Limited release from Fri 14 Dec.

An Elephant Sitting Still

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • China
  • 3h 50min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Hu Bo
  • Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuchang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi

A group of people head to the remote Chinese city of Manzhouli to see the titular mythical elephant which ignores the world. Hu’s debut film is epic and mesmerising, but is also his swansong; he committed suicide after completing it. It’s full of sorrow but is too skilful and imaginative to write off as pure miserablism.

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