Through tracking shots, close-ups and minimal dialogue director Hu Bo paints a bleak portrait of China, bolstered by a lead cast delivering understated and nuanced performances.
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Unsparing as Hu’s anatomy of moral drift may be, there is something graceful in his sympathetic attention to lives defined almost entirely by disappointment and diminished hope. Unlike the titular elephant, the film never stops moving, and by the end, instead of feeling beaten down, the viewer is likely to feel moved as well.
The film’s gritty, mundane agonies come to feel like a series of moral tests with genuinely unpredictable outcomes.
Admittedly, Elephant is a heavy affair, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Hu's characters remain very real, and they are never shown as indulgent to the point of being above the banalities of everyday life. Barbed humor abounds, too, in matter-of-fact dialogue.
Still, the respectful thing to do, it seems, is to treat An Elephant Sitting Still like any other film, imagining how it would look were Hu already hard at work on his next project. A lot depends on just how much sustained misery one likes to endure.
Powerfully conveying a longing for escape from ordinary life, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still is a strangely alluring, four-hour portrait of the disillusionment and hollow sense of emptiness experienced by those living in a society marked by violent individualism.
Hu provides no easy resolutions, and evidently found none himself. This epic of futility will have to stand as an epitaph for an extremely promising career cut short.
Unrelenting as its tone may be, the feature proves a delicately layered, deftly shot work that makes an incisive statement about the prevalence of apathy, arrogance and egotism in contemporary China and beyond.
At times, it feels as though we’re watching something we’re not supposed to be seeing, such is the detail of the emotional degradation on show; in this sense, it’s impossible not to read it as something of a nihilistic suicide note.
Unmissable for anyone craving the gritty realism and independent spirit of pre-00’s Chinese cinema. Fair warning: this is decidedly not the feel-good movie of the year.