“It’s Inspirational That He Creates a Language to Tell a Story That’s His Own”: Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still Discussed by DPs Ed Lachman and Philippe Rousselot and Critic Adriana Prodeus
The debut feature from writer and director Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still, caused a sensation when it screened at the 2018 Berlinale. Nearly four hours long, the movie unfolds over the course of a day in and around a blue-collar housing development in a third-tier Chinese town. Interlocking narratives follow a bullied high school student, an elderly parent pressured to move into a nursing home, a gangster who must avenge an attack on his brother and a girl’s illicit relationship with a married teacher.
The movie’s running time, difficult subject matter and troubled production have left an air of controversy around Elephant. But it remains one of the most striking films of its time, distinguished by exceptional writing, directing and acting. The independent distributor KimStim is releasing An Elephant Sitting Still theatrically beginning March 9.
Dynamic cinematography by Fan Chao helped bring the movie to the attention of Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven, Carol), who saw it at Berlin and at last year’s New Directors/New Films. He arranged for Elephant to be screened at Camerimage in Bydgoszcz. Filmmaker joined Lachman and critic and author Adriana Prodeus on a post-screening panel and Q&A session. Lachman and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Hope and Glory, the Fantastic Beasts franchise) later offered additional observations in separate interviews.
Audience member: Obviously we know from the introduction what happened to the director. [Hu Bo died by suicide in 2017, after finishing this film.] Did you contemplate not talking about it?
Adriana Prodeus: I think in every description of the film you will find the information that this is the last movie by the director. So it’s really difficult to watch it without knowing what happened to him.
Audience member: How important is that to the film?
Ed Lachman: I didn’t want to tell you that. I wanted you to experience the film without that information. I think the film has to work in itself. And then there is this other information.
Filmmaker: For me Elephant has a positive message. In the film at least, Hu Bo is not recommending suicide to viewers. At the bus station, Wang Jin tells Wei and Huang that they can go “over there,” but it’s not any better than here. I read that as saying: you can kill yourself, but it won’t fix anything.
Prodeus: The ending may not be a happy one for you, but it was for me. Seeing those people playing with the shuttlecock Wei found earlier is happy — even for a little moment. Being together, not alone, is for me a kind of happy end.
Lachman: You can always look back in retrospect. Obviously these ideas and thoughts were part of Hu Bo. Making a film is an execution of those ideas. Taking your life is also an act, maybe for him the same kind of act. I think it’s a strength of the work to leave it up to the viewer what to feel. We don’t always want films to complete the denouement, to reach a catharsis. I don’t need a happy ending. I can feel that I’ve experienced something new in a culture that I’m not a part of.
Philippe Rousselot: I totally agree. It’s my feeling that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a happy ending or an exciting ending or a sad one. To come back to how the film’s organized, something really struck me. Very broadly, in conventional film you develop a story, you show characters, and then the audience is affected one way or another from the content of the narration. But in this film the effects come before you perceive the structure or the narration itself. Hu Bo sets a mood visually, and that’s why this movie is so interesting for camerapeople. He sets the mood, what we call the effects in general. And then when you understand the situations the characters are in, they corroborate the effects you feel. I felt that the whole film was playing in reverse. I thought that was unique.
Lachman: Also the staging is so interesting. I’ll give you an example. Yu Cheng’s friend comes into the room, and he looks past Yu. The audience only realizes later that he sees Yu and knows who he is. Of course in real life he would have seen him right away. But Hu Bo doesn’t choose to show it that way. And there’s the time Yu sees Wei standing outside a restaurant. As a viewer you think, Oh, Wei’s going to be caught. But Yu talks to him in a very friendly manner. Maybe he knows him, maybe not. Hu Bo sets up these expectations that he doesn’t pay off. That always kept me going, kept me connected to the storytelling.
Prodeus: He does that with sound effects too. Like when Wei is visiting his grandma, and finds her dead, we hear fireworks in the distance. But we don’t see them. That was a very strong effect for me, the silence of the room, the silence of death, and the sound of fireworks.
Lachman: This is a world of darkness and isolation and separation. That was a creative choice Hu Bo made. And the way he moves the camera and composes, this with Fan Chao, the cinematographer he went to school with — they made decisions that were really extraordinary in the way they focused, the blocking, the exposures, the point of view. Generally when you’re moving the camera with someone, you’re traveling or walking with him, or her, you have the focus in front of him to see where he’s going, or who he’s reacting to. Hu Bo made a conscious decision, creatively, to always keep the focus on the individual. So you enter the interior world of the character that way. Even major action, like when Yu’s brother falls down the stairs, that’s a big story point and it’s out of focus. It creates a certain stylistic, psychological point of view for the viewer to experience these characters’ world — their solitude, their desperation.
Hu Bo was a novelist, he wrote two novels before he got to make this film. That’s why for me it’s a literary work in cinematic language. That’s a real rarity.
Prodeus: That’s exactly what I think. For me the narrative is the most interesting part of the movie. The way he develops characters reminds me of Chekhov, Dostoyevsky. The slow pace, the very long scenes, remind me of the process of reading a novel from the 19th century. This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and the dialogue is so precise. Every word connects to an earlier scene and subsequent ones, everything is dense, packed. What’s your opinion?
Lachman: That would be a question for the Chinese here. How good were the subtitles?
Audience member: Okay, not great. Obviously if you know Chinese you will get more out of it.
Prodeus: Can you say more about the Chinese context?
Audience member: I could say something about the location they choose. It’s a small city in the north of China, an industrial city. There are a lot of mines. I’ve been there, the air there is really bad. It makes all the visuals look grey. Really depressed.
Lachman: Do young people there feel a certain desperation about the future?
Audience member: The characters in this film don’t come from rich families. Their lives are such a mess, there’s nothing good in their lives. I think quite a lot of Chinese are facing that situation. It’s not like Beijing or Shanghai, where you see a big, powerful China. That’s what I love about this director — he shows the real China.
Audience member: I think one of the really strong points of the film is that it doesn’t really blame anyone. The evil in this film, the darkness, is never really shown or explained, it kind of remains hidden. Everybody is part of a system, they’re just playing parts. Hu Bo creates this really dark dynamic which I think is remarkable.
Filmmaker: I thought it was interesting how Hu Bo’s using familiar characters — a bullied student, a girl in trouble, a low-level gangster who’s got to keep face — and letting their stories unfold in what feels like real time. He’s stripped away all the tricks and conventions that narrative filmmakers fall back on to tell stories.
Lachman: I think he’s showing something about the breakdown in society.
Filmmaker: A film like this comes along maybe once every 10 or 15 years. It’s going to help define this generation.
Prodeus: The film became a legend, a cult, after the Berlinale screening. It also won audience awards at the New Horizon festival in Poland and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Viewers can feel the importance of this film.
Lachman: In my understanding, I don’t think Hu Bo came from a wealthy family. Having met his mother, I think his family was whatever we consider middle class to be. But they’re certainly not wealthy people. The family got the rights back from his producer [Wang Xiaoshuai], who kind of disowned it, had his name removed from the credits. The family has really been the champions of this film outside of China. I actually spoke with someone at Berlin who was with the mother. He told me they had shot it with an Alexa Mini and Cooke lenses. So it’s pretty incredible that they were able to get the movie to look like that. Obviously they used a Steadicam and also a Movi for those remarkable camera moves.
Filmmaker: There’s one scene towards the end, Wei and Yu are on a hill overlooking a railyard. The sun is setting, so there’s no time for retakes. They have to get that shot now or wait for another day. The take is, what, 10 minutes long? It moves into close-ups and out to wide shots, it circles around characters and pulls back in for these heartbreaking confessions. Ed, as a cinematographer, how do you go about getting a shot like that?
Lachman: Faith. But what’s so compelling to me visually is how the inner world becomes the exterior world.
Filmmaker: Can you explain that?
Lachman: With the tracking shots, you’re always moving through this journey with these characters. And the way he uses light, where you start in an exterior shot, and then you go inside. Conventionally in cinema you would open up the exposure to see more detail inside, but he keeps the characters in silhouette. It’s the kind of visual choices that he makes, maybe out of necessity, but he made certain artistic choices. The compositions, the near/far relationship in frame, or how people are framed by the space, is very architectural but also shows their entrapment. They’re in cramped apartments, against the windows, or in tunnels. Or people leave frame and he holds the frame and then they re-enter the frame.
These images create an emotional state for viewers, but they’re also how we perceive those characters. The images are restrictive, so what’s partially seen and obscured becomes our view of how they are trying to see out. Also, think about the point of view of how he shoots things. A lot of times you’re not seeing the actual action, you’re seeing the reaction to the action. It’s only peripheral. Like the brother that falls down the stairs, you just see a glimpse of that. You’re on Wei instead. I think this helps us enter the world of the characters. You feel like you’re in their subjective view, as they experience the world around them. A lot of times the things around them are not in focus, again creating a feeling of what they don’t or maybe aren’t able to see. In a way this film works in reaction, when normally films work in action.
To me, even the length of the film feels more like a written text than the conventions of a three-act play.
Filmmaker: At times Hu Bo seems to want to protect the viewer from the imagery, like when a dog is mauled.
Lachman: But that’s a conscious decision. Some people would think, Oh, this is how I’ll engage the audience. He made a choice not to engage the audience that way, to keep viewers focused on the characters and what’s happening to them. That they have this stoic quality to survive.
Filmmaker: He’s using a sophisticated way to tell a story, but in other hands it could become an affectation.
Lachman: A lot of people try extended shots, playing with real time. But it worked here. His methodology works. Why? Because of the writing. What people say, what they don’t say. And the performances are quite remarkable.
Filmmaker: Despite what happened to Hu Bo, I come out of An Elephant Sitting Still feeling uplifted. There’s a creative energy to the movie that’s inspiring.
Lachman: It’s inspirational that he creates a language to tell a story that’s his own. What I’m always looking for is to see things with new eyes, how to articulate a story visually and dramatically. That filmmaker really created his own language, methodology, aesthetic for telling a story. I agree with you there. I just think the ultimate message — there’s no end for these characters. The elephant is his metaphor for them all trying to deal with something outside of themselves. Maybe you could look at the elephant as China, or someone contemplating the next move. Possibly the elephant isn’t able to move because of what’s happening to him. That’s what’s beautiful about the film, why it’s more than a narrative, but kind of a textual poem, a fable. It’s open-ended. Rarely do you see a film express itself in that language, an open-ended language that you can read into. Obviously, it depends on your own experience. That’s why I tried to engage Chinese audience members to learn their interpretation. I don’t have that experience. They knew what the locale was, the milieu, this economic social group that they represented. I found there’s a certain kind of desperation, of despair, for the young and the old, and I think that’s what the film is dealing with.
Filmmaker: Any one of those four characters could see themselves as the elephant, stuck in a rut, unable to move forward, unable to stop what’s holding them back. But the elephant survives, people admire that. That’s why they come to see him.
Lachman: I read a quote from Hu Bo, “I hope young people of our age will not undermine their own lives.” So he’s saying I hope they find a way out, that they don’t let their economic social position be the thing that totally annihilates their future. So it is a cry.
Filmmaker: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Ash Is Purest White and An Elephant Sitting Still all take place in similar settings. I think Hu Bo’s film is the most honest.
Lachman: I agree. It’s less abstract in a narrative sense. The narrative comes out of reality, rather than a reality being imposed on the narrative.