Have You Seen… An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)?

Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!

Hu Bo’s film explains its enigmatic title straight away. The characters in this film, set in modern day China, have heard of a Circus, in a different city, where there is an elephant that sits still. The elephant could be thrashed or beaten (the film tells us) but it just sits still. On one level, and there are many levels at play here, it is a metaphor for persistence – a reflection of the cold world of hurts and harms that we have to bear, and that the characters bear in this film. On a much more important level, this elephant that sits still is a metaphor for depression. It is a large and unignorable presence that overwhelms. It is defined by waiting and by being static. It is always there, and the idea of it dominates the thoughts of the characters, and it is the symbolic weight that holds them down. It is just this irrational, incongruous and unexplainable thing that will not change. Why does the elephant sit still becomes a symbolic translation of ‘why are you sad?’ That’s just how things are, and they won’t change.

At this stage, it is important to mention the factor that overhangs this astonishing film. This film is written, directed and edited by Hu Bo. It is adapted from a story from one of his novels and it is a work of staggering complexity that is defined by confidence and a singular focus. Tragically, before the film was released, Hu Bo completed suicide. This is his debut film and it will always be his only film. It is very hard to come to terms with this.

Hu Bo was a student of Bela Tarr, one of my favourite filmmakers, and this influence is evident. However, this is not an act of imitation. Like a Tarr film, this is made up of very long takes. Also, like a Tarr film, this aesthetic does not feel like a gimmick or an affectation but a core part of the film’s intentionality. The elephant that the film is named after is also somewhat of an echo of the whale at the heart of Tarr and Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies. In that film, like in this, the large creature represents something overwhelming but also something beyond us. Yes, the elephant that inspires the characters is a symbol for depression, but it is also a symbol of hope and of the Sublime. The characters are imprisoned by their environment and, in many cases, by themselves. The elephant is something larger, something different, something unexplainable but also something static – something reliable. It is a destination and a purpose.

I am aware that an almost four hour long film that is fundamentally about depression, and that has the surrounding context this film has, is not an easy sell. However, though it is a very bleak and very sad film, ultimately it is deeply empathetic. This presents multiple storylines over the course of one day. The characters exist in separation, at the beginning, but their paths start to cross in various ways. The intersections are reminiscent of the overlapping sequences in Tarr’s Satantango. Like in that film, you start to think about things differently, as mixing narrative threads force you to reflect on the way that things are connected. The characters here are connected by many things. There are echoes and motifs throughout the film, as the different characters experience similar circumstances. Though, at no point does any of this feel contrived, even when we realise that multiple characters are motivated by the releasing of different compromising videos about themselves this echoing (and it is one of many echoes) does not feel forced.

The rhyming structure of conflicts and circumstances has a lot to say about the human condition, in which we are victimised and limited by similar things. Many films show human connection and humanity through positive connection, how our joys are universal. This film shows how our sufferings are universal too, and that is very important. Primarily, this film is an ever increasing web of tragedy and conflict. As the film progresses every storyline intersects in ways that grow more and more complex. The possibility space for tragedy is very wide and we see a lot of it. This is not just a pessimistic onslaught of negativity, it is an important revealing of a societal trait. This film does not think it is human to hurt each other and to suffer but it does recognise that this is something humans do. By being so long, this film lets us see such a wide portrait, and understand the motivations behind certain things that will be forever obscured to other characters. Quite simply, what we see is a world in which people are marginalised and scapegoated, and in which they pass their pain onto each other.

We also see a world in which people are just in need of help and understanding. Fundamentally, everything in this film is solvable. It all goes back to somebody needing to be there, to somebody needing to intervene. At points, the film gets close to just saying this – but it knows implication is much more powerful than exposition. This is not a cruel dirge; this is not nihilism. This film is a beautiful portrait of the need to look out for each other; the need to understand what we are all going through and the important knowledge that tragedy spirals outwards. The tragic lives at the centre of this film could be assisted at every point. A more caring society, a more present society and the existence of caring institutions would save all of this. This film is a film of hope, and it ends utterly beautifully in a way that could not be described as a happy ending but is definitely a optimistic one. Our characters do achieve something, even if it is only very little in the grand scheme of things. But, they only achieve anything through a symbolic form of collective action. Again, the message is a need to look our for your fellow humans and to work with them. This film can be too easily read as a condemnation of the world and of humanity. It is not this. This film is a deeply humanist rallying cry about the need to better ourselves and to think outside of ourselves.

Messaging aside, it is also just an incredibly made film. The craft, and its effect, echoes back to the thoughts of Russian Formalism: the ideas that art can be scientifically deconstructed for meaning and that aesthetics should never be pure aesthetics. Nothing in this film is art for art’s sake. It is a long film full of stylistic flair but every frame is deeply purposeful. For this reason, it never feels its length. There is a hypnotic consistency to the film that makes it utterly mesmerising, with no wasted moments. At the end, I truly wanted more and wanted to watch it again.

Let’s start by dissecting the long takes. The camera takes on an unobtrusive and passive role, the extended takes allowing the filmmaking to fade into the background. It is easy to forget the filmed aspect and to read things as reality, as the beautiful acting sells everything completely. The long takes are also thematically important. Again, this film is about depression, or about a depressive mental state. The monotony of uninterrupted footage mirrors the passivity of our disaffected protagonists. The film is made up, to a large extent, of their blank and unblinking stares. We just see hollow and empty people in front of us and the camera takes on this affect. This makes it deeply immersive and evokes the perfect atmosphere. The camera does often move with characters but it primarily positions itself as a constant mid-shot. This idea of being a step removed perfectly matches themes of disassociation and, of course, matches the emotional core of the film. So much of this is about passivity and being numb to the world – linking back to the stationary elephant – the perpetual camera and its perpetual distance sell this perfectly.

Even the way focus is used is perfect though, as banal details are often foregrounded and in focus, with moments of conflict happening out of focus in the back of the frame. At one point, a very intense thing happens in a restaurant. We hear screams and see the dancing light caused by an offscreen fire. But we don’t really see anything. This becomes part of the perpetual backdrop of the film, the idea that there is wider conflict and suffering all around – and also the idea of emotional numbness. A very late sequence involves a climactic encounter, which is astonishing, and which ties up so much of the narrative. When it gets to the moment of action that you know is coming, the camera focuses on the character at the front of the frame sat with his head in his hands. Something intense and core to the narrative is happening in the frame, but it is put in the distance and out of focus. This film prioritises emotional storytelling over exposition and is all geared around presenting a cohesive experience.

This is also achieved through lighting and colour grading. The whole film has a washed out, bleak tone. Everything is grey and desolate. This adds to the monotonous numbness and is partially achieved by the film being shot at the same time of day, for three hours a day, over stretch of time. Where directors like Malick, and even Michael Bay, film at the ‘magic hour’ or some specific hour for pure aesthetics, Hu Bo and cinematographer Fan Chao achieve something much more profound. The choice does make the film beautiful: every frame has this unique backdrop, a dull grey sky that also seems to be lit up in some oddly angelic way. It is not just boring and dull and bleak, it is oddly beautiful. This, of course, nicely brings in the key, and underlying, theme of hope and perpetual beauty. Even in this bleak, desolate and perpetual smog, there is a beauty you can barely put your finger on. But, of course, the main reason behind shooting at the same time is to create the numbness and monotony that defines the film’s emotional register. The narrative takes place over the course of a day, with night coming at the end and giving us our one break from the same sky, but it starts to feel timeless. To watch An Elephant Sitting Still is to feel disassociated. It is a mesmerising film but it also brings you, magnetically, into its mental space. By presenting a depressive mental state through its craft, it becomes a great work of empathy, perfectly translating the subjective experience of its characters onto the screen.

The music is also exceptional. Most of the film is soundtracked with ambient noise. The city because the instrument behind the action, and often feels overwhelming. The idea that it is always moving and always making noise is very important, selling the idea of the need to reach out to people. But we also become numb to it, as we develop an insular focus. At points though, the score kicks in. On a purely sonic level, it is a wonderful piece of music, but it is also the perfect thematic accompaniment. The music is built of repeating riffs and motifs that just wash over you. It sounds transcendental and beautiful but it is also undeniably numbing and repetitive. It is another part of the filmmaking that works in concert for the film’s empathetic intent. But the music also builds, not as in a crescendo (though there are some) but as in adding layers. The melody remains persistent, a looping riff that lulls you, but different looping melodies from different instruments start to enter. We have synthesised sounds and plucking guitars and, at the very end, it all comes together in one of the most beautiful moments in cinema. This is when all the characters are together. You get the feeling that the repetitive rhythms each represent one of them. One of them living out a hollow, repetitive and tragic existence but, like every life, one with its own beauty (here shown through music). And when these lives come together we get something truly transcendent. This is why the ending is so hopeful and so beautiful, and the very last plot point is evoked with just a sound effect – which only adds to all of this.

We may seem alone, and hopeless. We may be desperate. We may be numb to the world. It may all seem distanced and repetitive. But, when we come together and when we assist each other, we can do such wonderful things. The narrative of this film is testament to this but so is the film itself. Film is a collaborative medium and this film is a collaborative work of beauty. It is hewn from materials defined by despair, depression and loneliness but it all comes together to make something monumental. Even the length is an important part of this. The film itself becomes the elephant that is sitting still: this large and unavoidable thing determined to do one thing, much like how the film is all engineered towards one purpose. And like the whale in Werckmeister Harmonies, this stationary elephant of a film is just something larger than us that we are in awe of. That whale may be decaying and out of place, ultimately defined by tragedy, but it provides religious insight and purpose to the film’s protagonist. An Elephant Sitting Still may be a film full of utter tragedy, and one in a uniform register of sadness, but it is so large, and so beautiful and so transcendent. I cannot help but be in awe of it and I left it so hopeful. Because sadness, deep and profound sadness, does exist in the world. But we can do something about that: we can connect and help each other. And this cannot be achieved if we don’t recognise the sadness to begin with. This film is not a cry for help. This film is a call for action, but ultimately a message of hope. We can do better, and we need to do better, as the consequences are far too tragic.

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