Directed by Hu Bo
I’m inclined to write about An Elephant Sitting Still just so that I don’t forget about it. It’s a long movie, nearly 4 hours, and within its tempered approach to storytelling it’s easy to forget what really happens. And that’s putting aside whether it even matters.
It’s a journey, as most good movies are, and where the characters begin and end hardly seems to matter. Instead everything feels static, even as there are murders, suicides and the world’s angriest, most easily threatened dog owner. It’s a story that feels soon to ignite into something much more bombastic than this ever becomes, a genre story which never quite delivers the expected thrills.
And that’s not to say it’s not thrilling, because it is, strangely. Having read about the committed despair of the film (every shot is so gray it might seem black and white, and every scene was filmed either early in the day or late in the evening when the overcast sky offered less light than at midday), I expected it to be wandering in a way that could feel poignant but certainly not thrilling.
Instead there is a lot of action and potentially melodramatic set ups. There is a high school student who fights back against one of his friend’s bullies, a young woman sleeping with her school’s “vice dean,” a gangster (the bully’s brother) who sets out to punish anyone in his way, and then there’s a kindly old man who might be on the lookout for retribution when a lost dog fights and kills his own.
It’s pulpy in its own way, and these simmering resentments and frustrations do lead to violent outbursts. The point of the film, it seems, isn’t to suggest that these moments are evidence of evolution or growth (or abrupt left turns) within the characters’ lives but rather something more symptomatic of problems that they were born into.
Nothing in this film is exactly life giving. The entire landscape, all gray and industrial and filled with people prone to violence or petty acts of revenge (or other generally illicit behavior) feels as though it’s slowly sucking the life force out of these characters.
They are weighed down with guilt, fear or an overwhelming urge for revenge. But what does any of it really matter? They are just empty exercises, ways to claw back at the perceived symptoms of a void left otherwise unexplored or interrogated.
The plot, then, deals with the various traps in which they have found themselves ensnared. No matter the form the trap takes, it was likely inevitable. The only consistency here is that they would feel trapped at all, the details are interchangeable and temporary.
So the film is bleak, and the entire thing feels heavy, like a slow motion train wreck, being re-watched frame by frame. Every scene, or just about all of them, is filmed in a single long take that is impressively choreographed. The moments unfurl so slowly that it takes a moment before you realize just how much has happened since the last time the camera cut.
It’s a whole lot of action and an occasional plot turn, but it is captured in such a way to strip away any of the excitement. Deaths almost always happen offscreen, with the camera trained on someone else witnessing the event. They react, and we must anticipate what must’ve happened as it is reflected in their eyes. Then they turn, the camera turns with them, and slowly the background shifts into focus until finally we see what has happened.
Something about this contributes to the idea that nothing here is all that surprising, or shouldn’t be. When we are finally able to see what the characters see, it is past the point of no return. And it adds to the feeling that this is all some terrible cycle of pain and agony begun long ago.
And to really drive the point home there are several conversations in which this is stated quite clearly. Characters discuss pain like they’re talking about an old friend. It’s something they’ve been living with, not something they’re learning to live with.
Near the end the old man tells two younger characters that you can try to run away from it all, but in a new setting comes new challenges. But even that is sugarcoating it as he doesn’t describe challenges in the sense that they are there to be overcome. Because they’re not. It’s just more pain.
In an earlier moment a girl and her mother unload on each other in a loud argument teased throughout every quiet, simmering moment of their shared screen time up until this point. The mother reminds her daughter that she is trying to figure this all out just as she is, that she has no answers and that everything else might just be beside the point because they are who they are and perhaps the troubles they have found (or that have found them) are as much a part of them as anything else. They are their troubles.
It’s quite something, and I might say the length serves it well, but it might also just be that, as with any long movie, I feel some degree of pride simply for having sat through it. In any case the runtime forces you to really sit in the same world as these characters, to experience time in the same way they do, to slowly get used to the sounds of the environment and to learn how to recognize the slightest changes in their expression.
At any rate it’s a memorable movie.