Tusk Everlasting

Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 230 minutes.

THE SPECTERS OF ITS MAKER may always haunt An Elephant Sitting Still. Born from writer-editor-director Hu Bo, who ended his life at the age of twenty-nine, the film is an odd orphan: a first feature and a last one. Mordant and disconsolate in his final months, Hu blogged on Weibo of his sparrings with producers Liu Xuan and Wang Xiaoshuai (director of Beijing Bicycle, Shanghai Dreams, etcetera) over its elephantine four-hour runtime. Vexed, Wang sutured together an attenuated recut that he sent around to festivals in 2017. Such surgeries are standard, if myopic, for producers; Hu mourned them as a disfigurement. But upon Hu’s death that fall, the rights to the film were tendered to his parents, who restored their son’s opus, unmarred and intact. At 230 minutes, the scope feels novelistic, and, indeed, Hu teased out material from his novel Huge Crack––a fluid continuity between forms that hinted at his potential. “There is anguish because my son has died for an elephant,” his mother said to an audience at the 2018 Berlinale, where the sprawling debut premiered as a de facto epitaph. “Happy because the elephant is here with you.”

The elephant is not just the mammoth movie that Hu left behind but also the unseen creature that lends An Elephant Sitting Still its coda: a circus animal in the neighboring city of Manzhouli that does not eat or react to onlookers but instead rests at a stoic remove. Through pamphlets and banners, the fable of its passive resistance spreads across an ashen, miasmic coal town in the Hebei province of China, where the film unfolds, and where an atmosphere of ruin and futility lingers. There, the pallid sky never quite rains or snows but drips like a leaky faucet, and heaped industrial castoffs litter the cramped streets. Even homes seem surrendered to time or choked with accreted junk; in one ramshackle brick structure, a boy stumbles across the unheeded corpse of a relative, who had been dead for days.

Seldom since Michelangelo Antonioni’s factory-dotted fantasia Red Desert (1964) has a film been so relentlessly gray—and the Italian director at least lavished the landscape with paint to contrive a palette of dolor. But in his view of social squalor and civic unconcern, Hu owes more to the progress-skeptical works of countrymen Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing. Hu’s modern China is one of no exits, where entrapment in sagging, byzantine systems is a thudding inevitability. Embittered parents are sunk in degrading labors—one woman hawks garments to miners from the rear of a cart—and, fueled by this, stroppy with their offspring. Teachers declare, with curt apathy, “Our school is going to be demolished. This is the worst school in town.” No one can say which school the pupils will attend next, but anyway, they spend most of class time inflicting and receiving blows. And so, the Manzhouli elephant’s holy indifference in a fractured world beguiles the characters, who desire nothing more than to drop out of their dead-end lives. Scolded to not grow up to be a good-for-nothing, a boy replies: “What’s the difference if you’re of any use?”

Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 230 minutes.

From this knotty core, the film weaves the interlocking fortunes of four wearied residents across a single day. Local thug Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu) recoils as his friend, whose wife he has been bedding, catches the pair post-coitus and tosses himself from a high-rise balcony. Crammed on another damp ledge, the spry retiree Wang Jin (Congxi Li) is cast further out of the space he shares with his daughter—who is determined to move from the dilapidated district where most kids, according to a callous educator, “will become street food vendors”—and her family. Castigated by his jobless father at home, the brooding teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) wards off the puffed-up bully Yu Shuai (Zhang Xiaolong), also Yu Cheng’s punky brother, whose resulting crude tumble down the stairs frightens Wei into repentant flight. His sullen crush, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), shelters from her querulous, alcoholic mother in an imbalanced affair with the vice dean, who whisks the girl up to his pristine suite or prattles on as she shoves pastries past her lips with an eerily detached hunger, evidence of a greater need.

Hu knits each discursive sequence from alternating strands of Steadicam long takes that trace at least one drifter in the scattered quartet through slagheaps and chalky alleyways, stale pool halls and unpeopled train tracks, into an intricate fugue. Sometimes intimately, sometimes stiflingly, cinematographer Fan Chao’s camera floats near faces with an unwavering absorption, or follows the backs of heads with a third-person limited perspective that evokes an open world video game. This single-minded pursuit of characters seems to be spurred by an artificial intelligence, as if the camera contained a mind of its own, or by a spectral, hauntological force that mirrors the second stretch (that tour de force fifty-nine-minute shot) of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. But where that film is mired in a recursive past, An Elephant Sitting Still quests for a way out, and an escape into an undiscovered elsewhere. Traces of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)—Tarr mentored Hu Bo—imbue some of these camera movements, too, but Hu’s is, ultimately, a singular vision: less pendular and severe than kinetic, curious. With twitches or slow pulls backward, shallow-focus shots amass sly tensions: skewing perspectives, revealing people previously unknown to be present in the scene, or teasing flurries of violence at the edges of a muddled and blurred frame. One staggering set piece opens with the crook Yu Cheng and his surly ex-girlfriend slurping noodles in a tiny café; from offscreen comes the sound of shattering glass, and Yu hastens to the kitchen, where he rescues the afire cook. No person in the frame is a fixed image: Yu’s unhesitating mercy startles even him.

Deeper entanglements in one another’s lives kindle dim sparks of feeling among the protagonists. Thrown together by chance, Wang Jin lends cash to the fugitive Wei Bu in exchange for Wei’s carved, flimsy pool cue, which Wang does not want; but when a crew of gangsters hunts Wei to avenge the hospitalized Yu Shuai, Wang tussles with them rather than disclose where he found the cue. Kindnesses glimmer and proliferate. Unfairly, Hu’s sad end obfuscates a trend in the film, however murky, toward human connection. Suffocated by the sulfurous realities of their lives, three of the four characters undertake a pilgrimage to glimpse the Manzhouli elephant—a beacon, if not of hope, then of a spectacular force immune to the existential muck that drags them down. As they board a series of buses to witness this nucleus of stillness, the camera stills, too: For the first time, a long shot envelops multiple characters, standing apart, but in quiet communion. Earlier, a doubting Wang Jin had asked Wei Bu: “What will you do in Manzhouli?” Wei Bu responded: “There will be something. Look around. Everyone’s alive.” Life—the sole groundwork upon which experience can grow—is its own feat, however flawed. It’s a true loss that viewers now do not have the chance to see what Hu Bo could have done with his.

An Elephant Sitting Still opened in the United States on March 8.