An Elephant Sitting Still

 

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A film proving that the word 'auteur' could have been coined for the late Hu Bo.

 
Elephant Sitting Still, An
 

The elephant of this film's title is a symbol, one that is touched on at intervals throughout a work which otherwise plays out in realist mode. It is a remarkable work that would have had one predicting a bright future for the man who wrote, edited and directed it but for the fact that this man, Hu Bo, having made this first feature  after a number of shorts, tragically killed himself. He was 29.

 

It is exceedingly difficult to sustain any film lasting close on four hours as this one does so it is hardly surprising that the last hour of An Elephant Sitting Still, an hour during which the plotting comes to see more contrived and leads to a final scene emphasising the symbolism, has it weaknesses. But, at its best, this film is a tour-de-force. If its essential humanity together with casting which ensures that the people feel absolutely real evoke thoughts of the cinema of Ozu (together with a hint of De Sica's Umberto D. since here too there is an older character with a dog), it can also be said that the style of filmmaking is as individual as that of Ozu but in a mould entirely its own. Bo may cut at the end of sequences but most of the scenes play out unedited using a Steadicam. This involves the use of brilliantly controlled camera movement which invites close identification with the four main figures in the story and it is enhanced too by those moments when within the 'Scope image Bo makes facial close-ups prominent. In addition, he balances the roving camera movement with key moments that through the use of static shots acquire an extra emphasis and depth of feeling.

 

Set within the course of a single day, An Elephant Sitting Still follows its four leading figures in their city lives. Central is the 16-year-old schoolboy Wei Bu (Peng Yucheng) who, standing up for a friend, accidentally causes the death of a bully. Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) is the bully's brother whose family expect him to exact revenge (he is older and something of a hoodlum which makes the threat tangible although this character emerges eventually less as a villain than as a further victim of life). Meanwhile, Wei Bu's grandfather (Liu Congxi) is resisting family plans to save money by putting him in a home and another pupil, the 17-year-old girl Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), always at odds with her mother, is facing uncomfortable truths about the insecure nature of her affair with the school's vice-dean.

 

Moving from one figure to another at the start, the film is initially demanding, but once the individuals are established it is compelling. A late scene in which the grandfather visits a home where he may end up is over-stylised and a few sequences feel over-extended, but for the most part the sense that every shot has been precisely judged is exceptional. The linking thread is a view of human behaviour as being constant in the way that it causes human misery: the placid elephant in a distant zoo stands for the hope of finding a way of standing apart from this. But, as Hu Bo's own suicide suggests, his film although portraying a quest for an alternative seems to believe at heart that wherever you might go you will find life the same. At times the weight of all this renders this story of betrayal and despair obsessive yet, despite its imperfections, An Elephant Sitting Still does capture the singular, extraordinary cinematic vision utterly personal to its maker: Hu Bo's only feature gives him a place in film history.

 

Original title: Da xiang xi di er zuo.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Peng Yuchang, Wang Yuwen, Zhang Yu, Liu Congxi.

 

Dir Hu Bo, Pro Liu Xuan, Screenplay Hu Bo, Ph Fan Chao, Pro Des Xie Lijia, Ed Hu Bo, Music Hua Lun.

 

Dongchun Films-New Wave Films.
230 mins. China. 2018. Rel: 14 December 2018. No Cert.