Simultaneously Bo Hu’s impressive debut and, tragically, his final film—as he took his own life at the age of 29 before the film’s release.
Bo Hu was a student of Bela Tarr- and you can see the influence, this is in color (sort of, it is a really compelling choices in color design—it is a lifeless black, white and grey- very dreary – matching the pervading tone of the film) and Tarr always worked in B/W – but clearly the long complex tracking shots are from Tarr—a foreboding sense of doom as well. Bo Hu uses the titular elephant (never shown) like the whale in WerckmeisterHarmonies– being picked apart by the ugliness of humanity.
There’s a real anger and depression here—“The world is a wasteland” – “The world is just disgusting” – “life is annoying” “You should’ve been the one that jumped” and “My life is like a dumpster”
Within the long take tracking shots Bo Hu utilizes shallow focus to get into the headspace of his four intersecting protagonists. It’s effective. A reoccurring shot is one of our four in the foreground with an pitiless character yelling at them in the background out of focus. In these shots the protagonists character is the foreground with a semi-titled profile
The lines are delivered cold and stoic—Wes Anderson-like but of course not aimed at comedy. Maybe closer to Dreyer. It is like they have already given up
The 4 intersecting characters who run into each other during one day—in this kind of heavy dramatic and depressing mode reminded me of another debut- Inarritu’s Amores Perros — I see a bit of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant as well as we’re often just pacing behind the characters as they walk
I mentioned it above but we’re in winter, this is overcast, bleak—one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. A man jumps out of a building, we see a man beating up a dog—a powerful (and tragically beautiful) shot of a man discovering his dead grandmother—showing the window with her feet
A standout sequence is the silhouette work in the tunnel scene in and around the 140 minute mark (the film runs 230 minutes)
The tracking shots never quite inspire awe— they’re a strong formal aesthetic choice but there’s nothing here on the level of Burning’s (Chang-dong Lee) final shot—another film from 2018
Although not as awe-inspiring as some of the best films of 2018, An Elephant Sitting Still remains a film I appreciate more and more for Hu Bo’s decision and dedication to long takes. I also recognize his bold choice for the runtime. But upon studying it, it is the formal element I think that connects to the use of expression through narrative and pushes the film to an “achievement” worth studying and discussing. I’m tempted to add it in my top ten of 2018 although if it happens it’ll probably take the last spot.
@Nathan — totally agreed on the decision and dedication to long takes and the bold choice of the runtime– well done. Every critic rightly mentions it but how sad that we will never see another Bo Hu film. Tragic.