Berlin Patrick Gamble

Berlin 2018: An Elephant Sitting Still review

★★★★☆

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.

Under the perpetually grey sky of a run-down industrial town in northern China, Hu delicately weaves together the lives of those left to rot in a place where solitude and sadness prevail. Set over the course of one day, An Elephant Sitting Still follows three characters, each struggling to navigate the violence and hate that permeates their lives.

Sixteen-year-old Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) is on the run after pushing another pupil down a staircase, and his classmate, Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), finds herself publicly shamed after a video exposing her affair with the deputy headmaster goes viral. Meanwhile Mr. Wang (Liu Congxi), a kind-hearted pensioner is being forced out of his apartment by his own son. Slowly their paths entwine, with each of them dreaming about escaping to the city of Manzhouli, where they say there’s an elephant that simply sits, ignores the world.

Beautiful, mysterious, lyrical and somehow relaxing in spite of its sadness and persistent instances of violence, there’s a hallucinatory aura that surrounds Hu’s film, thanks primarily to the lyricism of his camera. Floating constantly between his character’s like smoke trapped in a glass, the lens clings mercilessly to their haunted faces, with almost every second of the film’s intimidating 230-minute runtime filmed in close-up. It seems sadistic that a film about people whose lives are going nowhere should combine this sense of confinement with a focus on movement, but it culminates in a bewildering rootlessness; an ephemeral desire to disassociate from the surrounding landscape and its endless cycle of despair.

Hu may paint a grim picture of a corrupt, soul-crushing society whose social fabric is wilting under the weight of rapid globalisation, but despite placing his characters in considerable and persistent danger, his vision, both as writer and director, is always sympathetic to their struggles. Hu sadly took his own life shortly after completing the film and his work here seems to hint at the dark thoughts that consumed him. A violent individual responses to a hostile, alienating climate, An Elephant Sitting Still may have been born out of one man’s suffering, but this tremendously personal work demands to be engaged with on the level of society.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble