“An Elephant Sitting Still” is an Elegy for China’s Industrial North

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4:00 PM HKT, Thu March 8, 2018 3 mins read

Chinese arthouse film An Elephant Sitting Still premiered at Berlinale on February 16, which happened to be the first day of the Lunar New Year. The 230-minute-long feature was shot exactly a year ago, just after the previous Lunar New Year, and after an intensive period of twenty-five shooting days, the production was wrapped in the industrial provincial capital of Shijiazhuang of Hebei province. The film features four main characters on a day trip, with a chronologically constructed storyline and poetic framing. It mostly takes place in Jingxing County, with a few additional scenes shot in a train station in nearby Shijiazhuang.

Full of the wintry grey and blue tones of northern China, the visual aesthetic and location choices of An Elephant Sitting Still somewhat resemble famed director Jia Zhangke’s early works. Jingxing Couty is right by the border between Hebei and Shanxi provinces, and not so long ago it had a booming coal industry.

An Elephant Sitting Still movie poster (Berlinale)

Elephant’s hand-held camera work, meanwhile, brings to mind another Chinese auteur, Lou Ye, and the fluidity of its long takes recalls the style of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. But many of the film’s unique, distinguishing features are clearly the choice of its director, Hu Bo, who based it on his own 2016 novel, Jinyangmao (Gold Wool).

An Elephant Sitting Still opens with a long tracking shot of snow on the highway, with a man telling the story, in voiceover, of an elephant in the Inner Mongolian city of Manzhouli. The elephant just sits there, not moving even when people poke it with a fork. Manzhouli is 1,819 kilometers from Jingxing County, and the film tells the story of a day in the life of four characters who embark on a train journey across this distance.

The characters make an unlikely grouping: a street gang leader witnesses his best friend jumping out of a window after the friend realizes he’s had an affair with his wife; a middle school boy tries to speak up for a friend, but gets himself into trouble with the big bully from school; a retired old man lives with his son’s family, but gets sent to a nursing home on the same day that his only companion, a dog, is killed; a teenage girl gets involved with the dean of her middle school, and a video of their inappropriate karaoke session goes viral around the school.

Still from An Elephant Sitting Still (Berlinale)

Gradually, without giving away the characters’ background, a series of events brings them and many other side characters together. They all live in the present, and on the one day shown in the film, they all somehow affect each other’s fate. No matter whether it’s running away from trouble, or returning to an old home, eventually the four are all drawn together on the train to Manzhouli. As night unfurls on the northern China plain, we see the train make a stop, and the characters disembark. Laughing, they play badminton in the bright train lights. The film ends there, with the sound of a trumpeting elephant emanating from the darkness.

The nearly four-hour screening experience at Berlinale was filled with silence and pauses, as the camera never stops rolling and moving — even the harshness of the surrounding environment manages to hypnotize. Most of the four main characters’ actions are frustrated, confused, angry, sometimes emotionless. Only in the final scene do they have smiles on their faces. We can sense a glimpse of hope from the ending, as these four characters, abandoned or neglected by the process of industrialization, find something more than just disappointment and devastation in this wasteland.

Writer/director Hu Bo (Berlinale)

Writer and director Hu Bo, who also edited the film, originally comes from the city of Jinan in Shandong province, and graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 2014. An Elephant Sitting Still is his debut feature, and sadly it is also his last, as he took his own life last October. At the end of the Berlin premiere, the traditional Q&A was replaced by a brief speech given by Hu Bo’s mother, and a speech from his film school teacher, Wang Hongwei.

Under the circumstances, it was not easy for them to bring Elephant to the festival, but independent Chinese films in general have seen increasing representation at Berlinale in recent years. Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, to name a prominent example, took the Golden Bear award for best film at Berlinale 2014, while Liu Jian’s animation Have a Nice Day entered the festival’s main competition last year. With both Elephant and Beijing filmmaker Yang Mingming’s debut feature Girls Always Happy premiering in this year’s program, Berlinale seems to have become one of the most important international platforms for the new generation of filmmakers from China.

As Wang Hongwei stated in his speech, the future of Elephant is very promising — not only will it get released in China, but the version audiences will see is the original, four-hour director’s cut.

[The film] visualizes the inner emotional challenges of individuals living in China’s modern society. Following his protagonists with big empathy, the director tries to show different ways to cope with indifference, negligence, rejection and violence. — Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique, Critics’ Prize

We hope that Elephant will receive the recognition it deserves, and wish for Hu Bo to rest in peace.

The next public screening of An Elephant Sitting Still will take place at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which runs from March 19 to April 5 this year at various venues.

Cover image: Berlinale

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