TIFF Review: ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’

Sometimes criticism is beside the point

4 mins read

An Elephant Sitting Still
(China, 234 min.)
Dir. Hu Bo

Sometimes criticism is beside the point.

An Elephant Sitting Still is Chinese director Hu Bo’s first feature film. It’s also his last: he committed suicide last October. The film premiered at the Berlinale to the very particular kind of rave reviews a four-hour film by a dead director might be expected to get.

The film weaves together four storylines that crisscross over the course of an exceptionally violent day in a post-industrial town in China. The moody teenagers, abusive parents, small-time gangsters, neglected old folks, and unscrupulous administrators who make up the film’s cast of characters mainly float around in a depressive haze; even the violence has, in the main, a kind of nonchalance, landing with a thud rather than a bang. In the background is a recurring story about an elephant in the presumably somewhat nearby town of Manzhouli, who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune sitting absolutely still. Some characters find this show of stoicism hilarious, others depressing, others intriguing.

An Elephant Sitting Still is as bleak as any film I have ever seen. It’s just miserable. Aesthetically, it is closest in spirit to the work of Béla Tarr, who was a mentor to Hu Bo and introduced the film at TIFF. Its long takes, despairing monologues, sprawling runtime, and narrative structure all call to mind Werckmeister Harmonies in particular, with some of Turin Horse’s moroseness. Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe to Hu an aesthetic vision on that level. I don’t mean to imply that Hu wasn’t skilled—he clearly was—but the fact is that the film is, in telling moments, as artless as high school theatre.

It’s in that sense that I say criticism is beside the point. In the context of Hu Bo’s fate, it is impossible not to read this film as a suicide note. The despair, which takes on philosophical tones but is primarily affective and atmospheric—and therefore much more overpowering—is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Whatever some may think, even the most anguished, claustrophobic, nihilistic work of Tarr or Diaz or Fassbinder or Akerman, etc., finds a way to back away from the brink, whether through actual levity or aesthetic gesture or formal ingenuity or a redeeming foil._ An Elephant Sitting Still_ has none of those things. It’s just miserable through and through.

Is it good? Hard to say. Much of it is prodigious filmmaking, measured and heartfelt and quietly virtuosic. At other times, the dramaturgy is genuinely embarrassing, indulging in all sorts of ludicrous teenage fantasies. Of course, it’s those very moments, when aesthetic pretense melts away into sheer anguish, that house some of the film’s greatest and most uncomfortable insights. So is it good? I don’t know. But maybe that’s beside the point.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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