Photo: Berlinale
by Luke Gorham Film Horizon Line

An Elephant Sitting Still | Hu Bo

April 11, 2019

An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo’s bleak epic of lives spent swimming upstream in the modern economic conditions of China, is an exacting depiction of depression. Even without knowing the circumstances behind the film (its director took his own life last October), an unrelenting nihilism of both narrative and tone couch Elephant in double-downed hopelessness for nearly its entire runtime. But while the film toes the line of miserabilism, Hu’s commitment to intimacy makes it feel more like an emotional and psychological audit than a cudgel — an attempt at exorcising the demons that dictate this reading of the world. The director’s chief aesthetic commitment is closeness to his characters, literally and figuratively. His patient approach allows characters to hold lengthy, unabridged conversations, punctuated by uncomfortable silences and deflections, reveling in the micro temporal setting of a single day as evidence of a macro existence.

Visually, Hu prefers soulful, floating Steadicam shots, ghostly navigations of cramped quarters and decaying city streets, and swirling shots that almost seem to be searching for a better view. Still, Hu’s camera turns away from much gratuitous violence (a brutal dog attack and a beating that one of the characters suffers both occur offscreen), a self-aware nod to the internal violence already borne by his subjects. And while certain narrative contrivances (two suicides and an accidental murder all occur within 24 hours) and constant self-reflection of circumstance and misanthropic philosophizing by the characters sporadically undermine the film’s power, Hu shatters this POV with a poignant and devastating final moment that serves as a pointed rejection of the previous four hours’ hopelessness.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 3.