An Elephant Sitting Still
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In the northern Chinese city of Manzhouli, they say there is an elephant that simply sits and ignores the world. Manzhouli becomes an obsession for the protagonists of this film, a longed-for escape from the world in which they find themselves. Among them is schoolboy Bu, on the run after pushing a bully down the stairs and accidentally injuring him. In virtuoso visual compositions, the film tells the story of one single suspenseful day from dawn to dusk, when the train to Manzhouli is set to depart.
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It’s an unremittingly bleak piece, depicting a world (literally and metaphorically) without colour - a world from which pretty much all human feeling has been lost. Instead, mistrust, manipulation, bullying, aggression, cynicism are what dominate; everyone on screen is involved in some way and to a greater or lesser extent with life's daily struggle and sheer survival.
Taking place over a single day and following the overlapping, increasingly desperate itineraries of four people, the film encompasses two suicides, several beatings, a shooting and the death of a dog; periodic eruptions of violence being a synecdoche of a deeper, widespread cruelty and alienation. For while the characters’ paths cross and recross, Hu’s sombre, careful compositions and slow takes emphasise their isolation and the social conditions that make solitude and defensiveness a protective strategy. There is occasional tenderness, but it seems fragile and fleeting, unlikely to survive the Darwinian realities: in this world, being selfish, suspicious and mean is a condition of entry.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” shows the influence of Jia Zhangke, arguably modern China’s principal cinematic depictor of disaffection and dislocation. But unrelenting as Hu’s anatomy of moral drift may be, his empathetic attention to lives defined by disappointment and diminished hope doesn’t leave us entirely bereft: by the end, the viewer is likely to feel soul-searched and deeply moved rather than simply beaten down.
But then, any catharsis may well be over-shadowed by the knowledge that this will be Hu’s only film — the sole testament to a career that ended when the 29-year-old director committed suicide in 2017. It would, of course, be a mistake to draw too direct a connection between that and what is displayed onscreen, but it’s also hard to avoid the impression that this persuasive portrait of a society in crisis reflects a deeply personal vision. Highly sophisticated and rewarding work.