Could have been a formidable work if it was a good 90 minutes tighter, but Hu Bo’s first and last film is still a riveting watch, backed by strong performances and societal themes.
Dir. Hu Bo
2018 | China | Drama | 230 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for some coarse language
Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuchang, Wang Uvin
Plot: Four people in a Chinese city live through a complicated day as their lives intersect.
Awards: Won Best First Feature Award – Special Mention & FIPRESCI Prize – Forum (Berlin); Won 2 Golden Horses – Best Feature Film, Best Adapted Screenplay. Nom. for 4 Golden Horses – Best New Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Film Score
International Sales: Rediance
Subject Matter: Moderate/Social Issues
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Chinese Film Festival ’19)
Writer-director Hu Bo in his first (and sadly last feature) made a sprawling four-hour long drama, but it was deemed to require significant edits by producer Wang Xiaoshuai (of Beijing Bicycle (2001) and Red Amnesia (2014) fame) to tighten up its pacing and storytelling, and presumably to boost its commercial prospects.
Hu refused, citing artistic integrity, even garnering support from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s longtime editor Liao Ching-Song, according to a web posting published by Hu’s close friend.
Hu was eventually found dead by apparent suicide before the film could see the light of day. Wang subsequently removed his own credits from the film and the copyright now belongs to Hu’s parents.
“Life just won’t get better. It’s all about agony. That agony has begun since you were born.”
Much has been made, speculated and debated over Hu’s suicide, and it will continue to do so with conspiracy theories flowering away on the web. But it is hard not to believe that what happened was the result of the classic clash of ‘creative differences’ taken to the extreme.
Yet Hu’s work, the poetically-titled An Elephant Sitting Still, reveals so much more of its creator’s psyche and worldview that it enshrouds itself like a tragic myth. It is difficult to think of a similar precedent with such heavy foreshadowing.
The film centers on a number of characters, all working-class folks both young and old. Many of them cross paths by virtue of the numerous settings that Hu has enforced upon them, for instance, the school, the residential estate, the train station, etc.
Each setting is almost like a social institution of its own. The (poorly-funded) school is, of course, very clear-cut, producing bullies, while the train station, a transient space, are scammers’ best refuge. The multiple rundown residential estates are also fascinating as they house in tight, cosy spaces, a range of people with their own set of family problems, some quite sensationally dramatic.
“He told me the other day. There is an elephant in Manzhouli. It sits there all day long.”
Why it is important for me to mention settings and spaces is because Hu’s numerous long takes identify with them soulfully, be it a corridor, a street, a room. These man-made areas are in a sense stripped bare by the camera, as it follows any one character who would go on to inhabit a series of spaces with both psychological and emotional baggage.
Hu does this throughout, and there is a reason why it runs for four hours. It can sometimes be too indulgent, so you could say that I’m on Wang’s camp in this regard. But I’m also on Hu’s side, and even if his film could have been a more formidable work with a tighter cut, one cannot deny that An Elephant Sitting Still is still a largely riveting watch even if it feels every minute of its length.
The strong performances by the ensemble cast and powerful societal themes (explored from the ground up and with an absence of authority) make it an essential watch. This is cinema about society’s strugglers trying to outsmart one another even if they seem to be in the same boat. It is made more heartbreaking knowing that Hu had probably experienced it all.