The emotional period an artist goes through when making art can be heavily influential in the type of tone or atmosphere the artwork presents to an audience. Just as any gleeful artist can make a work that’s charming or life–affirming to its audience, a depressed artist can make an art piece that’s massively melancholic and sad in the atmosphere conveyed to the audience. In Hu Bo’s first and ultimately final film An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), the melancholic tone presented throughout the lengthy four–hour runtime is heavily apparent in both the writing and overall aesthetics of the film. With the emotional power of the film, steeped in a very forlorn emotional state that keeps the audience in that sad mindset throughout the entirety of the film, this work from the late director Hu Bo is one of the most impactful films of all time, let alone the 2010s.
It’s readily apparent early on that the film is an interconnected journey, tying together four separate main characters who will eventually converge later in the runtime. The gangster Yu Cheng (Yu Zhen), male high schooler Wei Bu (Yuchang Peng), female high schooler Huang Ling (Uvin Wang), and the elderly Wang Jin (Zi Xi), are all introduced as they start their lives at the dawn of an ordinary day. Hu Bo immediately presents a melancholic atmosphere as the film’s images are overwhelmed by the grayness of either overcast weather (or more likely heavy air pollution) as the characters are shot in long–take tracking shots. This muted color palette easily underlines the sad emotional state of the film, as the characters go through emotionally draining lives that lack any vitality, just as the color palette lacks any sense of life.
The long–take tracking shots further immerse the audience into the sad atmosphere of the film as the camera never leaves the presence of the main characters experiencing painful events, such as witnessing a suicide or experiencing domestic abuse. The lack of cuts also forces the audience to view the painful events in their entirety, not allowing a chance of respite through cutting, as most dramatic films might, in order to lessen the crushing weight of these sad periods.
The film ties these four characters on an eventual journey to witness a local attraction of an elephant in Manzhouli that sits and ignores its surroundings within the zoo. While the concept of four strangers grouping up to see an elephant may be questioned by outside viewers, just as it’s questioned by several of the characters within the film, the concept of a living creature able to ignore its surroundings is a central concept that these main characters desperately need within the film.
The characters are constantly told by others that life is painful and that there’s no chance of being able to live a more comfortable future. All the characters live in noticeably cramped, dirty, and often bleak environments like the small apartments that Huang Ling and Wang Jin live in, or the school that Wei Bu and Huang Ling attend. These environments are often shot in close–up camera shots and shrouded in darkness, with few light sources or appealing decorations. This lack of adequate living and educational spaces allows Hu Bo to pair the struggling lives that each character undergoes with the decay that surrounds them, making their environmental life as bleak as their futures will become. The crumbling environments, such as the school, reveal that the environmental situation is just as shambolic as the social situations they find themselves in.
The film showcases many acts of violence and death, that further intensify this bleak atmosphere. From Yu Cheng witnessing multiple suicides, or Wei Bu accidentally injuring another student at his school, these moments are shot in close–ups on the main characters, while the deaths or injuries occur off–screen. This allows the audience to be fully immersed in the shock that the characters experience during such traumatic events, making the violence just as impactful as it would be if the injuries were fully and clearly shown, isolated on their facial expressions alone.
These violent moments are only further intensified by the focus on their aftermaths, allowing the severity of these scenes to be bolstered, as the characters separate themselves from the bodies of injured or dead people, just as they do from the living people around them. Scenes of confrontation—between Wei Bu and the high school bully, or Wang Jin and the male owner of the white dog that killed his own pet—are shot in a tense manner to worry the audience about the dangers our struggling characters face. When the main characters are threatened by an antagonist, it is often shown in lengthy, static close–ups as they stand close to each other. This lack of distance between the characters and the camera makes the audience feel uncomfortably constrained to view these situations, just as the main characters are constrained in the dire situations they’ve been placed within. Moreover, these static shots force the audience to be still, and observe these moments of conflict, further reinforcing the lack of choices for the characters to leave, as they’re stuck in place, just as the audience is when viewing these moments.
The soundscape of the film also underlines its heavily melancholic nature. Throughout the majority of the film, there’s no score or music playing during the lengthy conversation scenes or moments of idleness, instead playing background noises such as cars driving by or bird calls. The quiet ambiance of the film makes it feel a lot less energetic and more lifeless, just as the main characters feel an emptiness in their slow, depressing lives. However, when the score does present itself, with electric guitar riffs and electronic instruments, it is made much more powerful due to the absence of any prevalent score beforehand. The repetition of riffs and layering of sounds on top, makes the composition more engaging to listen to, as a previously tired note is rejuvenated with the addition of more unique sounds and rhythms.
The conclusion of the film is emotionally impactful after being through such constant scenes of duress and misery. While the train tickets to see the elephant have been cancelled, the central characters still decide to travel to Manzhouli on a different bus route (minus Yu Cheng). This final journey is a quiet and reflective night–time ride as the characters sit in the dark bus interior riding to their destination. This scene plays with a final music score highlighting the long journey each character underwent in order to escape a bleak domestic situation to achieve a sense of fulfillment. As the bus stops in a dark road and the passengers play in front of the headlights, an elephant’s call is overheard as the film cuts to credits. With the tragedy of Hu Bo’s death by suicide after completing the film, it’s a massively powerful statement that while the elephant still hasn’t been seen, it’s presence is still known to the characters of the film. And while Hu Bo isn’t around today, his presence in cinema for years to come is sure to be as powerful and loud as the unseen elephant that ended his single masterwork.