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New Release Review - AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL

An Elephant Sitting Still review
A day in the lives of the denizens of a Chinese tower block.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Hu Bo

Starring: Yu Zhang, Yuchang Peng, Uvin Wang, Congxi Li

An Elephant Sitting Still poster


I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said that the length of a film should not exceed the time it takes for the human bladder to fill; probably why The Master’s (and most other) films are generally around the toilet break friendly two-hour mark. Throughout the four-hour duration of An Elephant Sitting Still, then, you would have the opportunity to piss yourself twice, if you haven’t died of sheer boredom by the half way mark, that is.

An Elephant Sitting Still review

Reviews of this Chinese drama have been effusive, using superlatives like ‘hypnotic’, ‘layered’ and ‘cinematic’, and the film inevitably won something at Berlin, along with accolades at a couple of other festivals, too. But with the film playing to so many critical sweet spots - inaccessibility, pseudo-meaningful pauses, poor foreign people - it isn’t difficult to fathom the praise. The subsequent suicide of writer/director Hu Bo has also been mined by write ups for the irresistible conjugation of real-life tragedy and on-screen representation. However, despite An Elephant Sitting Still’s laudable narrative co-ordination of four separate plot strands over a running time that adds up to a sixth of a day, this particular emperor is nonetheless running about a dystopian dynasty of tower blocks, petty violence and urban repression without his mianfu and the dragon robe on.

Story wise, in An Elephant Sitting Still we follow separate denizens of a Chinese tower block. There is an old fella who has to sleep on a balcony, a girl who has an affair with a school master, lads who get bullied in school: people who are defined by their circumstances, rather than any developed characterisation. And when I say we follow them, I mean literally: the dominant visual mode involves a Steadicam tracking characters as they walk down streets, across the room, up and down stairs in a manner of longueur that even Iñárritu would consider a bit indulgent. This subjectivity extends to shallow focus and stifling close ups, which, if the intent is to express the claustrophobic, inescapable conditions which the characters find themselves within, works like gangbusters. For four whole hours.

An Elephant Sitting Still review

When action does happen, like a bloke jumping out of a high window to his death 20 minutes in (he got off lightly), or a dog being mauled to death (!), it generally occurs off-screen (towards the end, one of the aforementioned lads gets into a scrap which we do actually witness, and it’s the most unconvincing violence since Team America and provided a welcome giggle at my house).

No, An Elephant Sitting Still is not a comedy, but it’s not particularly effective as a drama either. The problem is that each plot strand, every dimension of poverty and compromise, is related in the same intensely flat demeanour that the film levels its own narrative into a dull grey ‘sameness’; there is nothing to really differentiate how shit each character’s life is, with each actor emoting in the similarly suppressed way, each scene affecting the same crushing intimacy. It is hard to care either way about these people as the film just seems interested in presenting them as is rather than exploring their situations, as if the awful circumstances they find themselves in is enough in itself to sustain our attention (for four whole hours).

An Elephant Sitting Still review

There is nothing wrong with excessive running lengths per se. It’s hard to imagine a 90-minute cut of Boogie Nights or, say, Infinity War, as those are films which, for better or worse, use their duration to orchestrate multiple narrative incident. Conversely, most of An Elephant Sitting Still consists of long scenes where we watch over the shoulder as someone walks somewhere or another, or soberly held close ups of people with a face like a slapped arse. It’s the sort of film that, with its pensive pauses and gnomic dialogue, confuses the viewer into mistaking boredom with meaningful engagement and deep consideration: a Stockholm comprehension. At the time of writing, An Elephant Sitting Still is rated 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. This Movie Waffler says that there’s something big and grey in that critical area.

An Elephant Sitting Still is in UK cinemas December 14th.


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