An Elephant Sitting Still  TIFF Review: It is an exemplary and ambitious piece of art that plunges you into the desolate void, slowly eating up your morality and leaving a scar on your subconscious.
Films like “An Elephant Sitting Still” are a reason I fell in love with cinema. It’s a cliche statement. But I often don’t use it. The gravity of the statement could only be realised after seeing the film. It left me disturbed for a couple of days. It left me shattered. Something changed inside. Something I can not point to. The film is a giant monster chewing up the facade of delusional happiness. Bringing face to face to your true self.
“You can go wherever you want, you won’t find anything different,” tragically exclaims Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) embracing his resentful fate. The state of suffering misery has rotten all the hope and thrown out in a big giant dumpster. And it stinks of human frailty that makes the smoky air of the surrounding asphyxiating.
‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a meditation on nihilism. An allegory of fatalism. It’s a tale of macabre spiritual crisis. Souls breathing in a wasteland, scarred by despondency for life, are lulled by hopelessness. Burning with rage for the pain inflicted on them, they seek salvation in the myth. The myth believed with such stubbornness it becomes a delusional reality. A symbol of hope and change. As the legend goes, an elephant sits in a zoo and refuses to eat or move as if contemplating the purpose for its existence. In a way, it seems to echo the characters’ alienated existence.
“The world is a wasteland,” Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu), a young local hooligan, blatantly admits. Fan Chao’s camera work is plausible and effective in creating a dreary milieu. Shot in low light and low contrast, Fan Chao takes long-takes often using the shallow focus and close-ups to reveal the intimate details of the characters & study the psychological introspection. The internal feelings of misery and tragedy are further intensified shooting the filthy & hostile surrounding in deep focus and gradually blurs it to bring the characters in close-up. The melancholic sound immaculately dissolves in the muted colours of every frame to make the already gloomy subject pessimistic.
Often gloomy and drenched in bleakness, the film is a breathing example of miserabilism. A stagnant industrial town soaked in smog with cramped and decaying apartments. It’s a town descending into moral ruin on a brink of despair under the murky cloud of slow-decay of humanity and the town. The hostile streets often witness violent altercations. Garbage is piling up on every corner of the town. The school will be soon demolished. The town in itself is growing in a myth, turning in the elephant sitting somewhere near Manzhouli, indifferent to civilization.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a gritty romanticism of an apathetic condition of the four lonely spirits emerging out of this wretched town. All the four characters quintessentially embody everything wrong with the Chinese society and Government. Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) bears the brunt of the family and regularly bullied in the school as well. His father, who lost his job over the bribe, is a patriarch and dumps on his frustration on Bu. All the anger aggravates into a rage that leads to a catastrophic event, compelling him to run away from the home.
Yang Cheng is ruthless and self-confessed heartless. He witnesses his best friend, whose wife he has slept with, jump from a window to his death. He is running away from the guilt. Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), who is the love of Wei BU, is having an affair with her teacher, to have a better living condition and avoid the hysterical mother. Wang Jin‘s son tries to pack him off to a nursing home, so to occupy the cramped house that is hardly inhabitable.
All four characters are beyond redemption. They have embraced existential nihilism and believe life is beyond repair. The characters crisscross over the course of an exceptionally long violent day. All of them decide to see an elephant sitting still in the zoo, far off from the desolated town. The film is as bleak as any film I have ever seen. It’s just miserable.
‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is an exemplary and ambitious piece of art. And it plunges you into the desolate void, slowly eating up your morality and leaving a scar on your subconscious. It’s a staggering achievement in a film-making by a novelist-turned-director Hu Bo. The influence of European art house icons such as Bela Tarr and Sixth Generation” of the Cinema of China is imminent as he has studied under Bela Tarr and Wang Xiaoshuai. It is hard to believe that this is the first and, unfortunately, the only film of Hu Bo. Hu Bo committed suicide after completing it, and the film, in a way, reflects his psyche and in the hindsight, it is, as if, almost a suicidal note.