It’s rare for a filmmaker to create a masterpiece with their first film. Most filmmakers, from Martin ScorseseMartin Scorsese to David Cronenberg, had to develop their craft with their first few films before making their first great film. The most famous exception to this was Orson Welles, who astonished the cinema world with his classic debut film “Citizen Kane.” With his debut film “An Elephant Sitting Still,” the prodigal Chinese filmmaker Hu Bo made an astonishingly accomplished film that is just as aesthetically groundbreaking as Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” Tragically, Bo committed suicide at the age of 29 just after finishing “An Elephant Sitting Still,” leaving a gaping hole in the cinema landscape.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” follows the lives of four characters in the large Chinese city of Shijiazhuang over the course of a single day, from morning until evening. Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) is an elderly man who lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter; his life is forever changed when his son confronts Wang about moving out of his apartment and into a retirement home. Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) is a gang member who’s caught having an affair with his close friend’s wife. Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) goes on the run after unexpected consequences from a dispute over a stolen phone with his high school classmate. Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is a young woman who has a troubled relationship with her mother, and takes out her frustrations by having an affair with her high school vice-dean. All four of these characters are connected by their dislocation from the wider society, which leads them to leave Shijiazhuang to see a rumored elephant that remains still even as it’s being beaten.
Although it’s set during the course of a single day in one city, “An Elephant Sitting Still” is three hours and fifty-four minutes long, a length usually reserved for epic films spanning multiple locations and wider timespans. By using this expansive length for a film concentrated in a single city and one day, Bo is exploring the concept of screen-time and deconstructing traditional notions of temporal space in cinema. Instead of rapidly jumping back and forth between its various storylines, Bo films “An Elephant Sitting Still” in real-time, patiently letting his scenes play out without fast cuts, and using long tracking shots to follow his characters as they move across the cinematic landscape naturally and without interruption. The film has an immersive, documentary-like quality, making the viewer feel like they’re experiencing the lives of the onscreen characters in a deeply intimate level.
This method of filmmaking is very much aligned with the concept of slow cinema, as exemplified in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai-Ming-liang, and most notably Bela Tarr. Indeed, Tarr mentored Bo after he graduated from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, and has been a vocal champion for “An Elephant Sitting Still.” While less adventurous viewers may be put off by this more sedate form of cinema, Bo has created an emotionally engaging and cinematically vital film that packs a powerful emotional wallop by the last act.
The reason for this is directly tied to Bo’s method of filmmaking, as his detailed and patient portrayal of his various characters gives the viewer the space and time to closely identify with their respective dilemmas. In one particularly astonishing sequence, Wang Jin visits the retirement home his son chose for him, and the camera slowly pans across the hallway from Wang’s point of view as he watches the various forlorn looking elders alone in their confined prison cell-like rooms. By filming this scene in real-time without any cuts, Bo allows the viewer to feel the full despair of Wang’s situation, as he watches the various neglected elders in the retirement home, slowly awaiting their own deaths without any family support. Later, Wang joins up with the other three youthful protagonists in their journey to see the film’s fabled elephant referred to in its title. This endeavor offers a sort of respite and sense of optimism for Bo’s embattled characters.
With its story of dislocated youth and their involvement in crime and gangs, “An Elephant Sitting Still” also recalls Edward Yang’s Taiwanese film “A Brighter Summer Day,” another powerful and meditatively paced film with a lengthy runtime. Like Yang’s film, “An Elephant Sitting Still” rewards patient viewers with an authentic portrait of a specific time and community. Ultimately, Bo’s film is a deeply humanistic examination of the working class, disenfranchised members of Chinese society, and the emotional turmoil that underlies their daily struggles to survive. Bo’s unvarnished portrait of the lives of these ordinary Chinese citizens has the same cinematic impact as the neo-realist films of Vittorio De Sica. Like the fabled elephant of the film’s title, Bo’s characters are constantly buffeted by societal forces that threaten to overwhelm them, but in the end they are able to find peace and solace within their troubled existence.
- Film Review: An Elephant Sitting Still