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In a zoo in the northern Chinese city of Manzhouli sits an equable elephant, solemnly oblivious to every happening in the world around it. Reports of the creature’s defiant indifference pass between the four central characters in this astonishing debut feature by Hu Bo like secret knowledge, a possible clue for escaping their own enclosing fates. Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), a small-time hoodlum, becomes unmoored by his best friend’s suicide. Wei Bu, a failing student tormented by his abusive father, confronts a bully with dire consequences. The troubled girl he has a crush on, Huang Ling (Yuwen Wang), is sleeping with the school’s assistant principal. Finally, Lao Jin (Congxi Li), an elderly pensioner long settled into a quiet routine with his dog, faces the upheaval of being sent to an institution by his son.
Loosely connected at the film’s outset, these four become increasingly entangled as incident and the gravity of Hu’s long takes and tightly framed camera draw them together over a single day. Time, however, feels elastic, oscillating between existential abstraction and urgent specificity—just as Hu’s characters, bathed in cinematographer Fan Chao’s bruised lighting, lurch between acute self-awareness and grasping desperately in the dark. As everyday cruelties and losses mount, a larger portrait of social isolation emerges that makes the film’s final grace note of connection and escape all the more affecting and profound.
That rare cinematic gift—a masterpiece on debut—An Elephant Sitting Still is also, tragically, Hu Bo’s final film. He took his own life in October 2017. The film was completed posthumously. Description adapted from Paul Malcom. (Dir.: Hu Bo, China, 2018, 230 min., DCP, Mandarin with English subtitles)