And yet, at almost four hours in duration, Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still rarely does so little itself. There is such motion to this picture, perhaps only evident in its contrast to its stiller elements: long shots, a grimly grey aesthetic, an an overbearing sense of lingering despair and desolation establish a mood, and Hu weaves upon it a rich tapestry of emotional vacillation. A community of characters, each conspiring to thrift whatever potential for fleeting contentment or prosperity they may from the hands of one another, collaborate in the unwitting (and ultimately ineffectual) rupturing of that very community's state of stasis. China, ever ostensibly moving forward, instead rests fatigued, latently violent, and unable to express its own desperate needs.
For a movie that's essentially about collective, societal depression, there's remarkable life to An Elephant Sitting Still. Hu's compassion burgeons forth from scenarios bearing the grimy stamp of authenticity, his characters full of the kinds of thoughts and feelings one might expect from such downtrodden types - the whole movie feels full, there being detail in every gesture made, every sentence spoken, and cohesive, meaningful purpose behind them. And, in spite of running 230 minutes long, there's nothing extraneous here, nor anything wasted. Hu's vision never appears to us as unfinished or unnecessarily ambiguous in its intent, and his empathetic skill as a director ensures that its expression never rings false or misguided.
That pleasant little thrill in witnessing an artist so in command of their craft is tempered, though, if not by anything negatory: this is not a depressed movie, but it is very much a movie about depression. One watches An Elephant Sitting Still either enduring the difficulties wrought on its protagonists or anticipating those that do inevitably arrive, albeit not always in the expected manner. Sympathetic performances both compound the depression and deflect from it - perhaps they help portray it, and prevent against transmitting it. Regardless, there's a most crushing transmission of depression here: the movie itself. Shortly after its completion, Hu Bo committed suicide. As legacies go, one feature film is fewer than most directors', but far greater than the vast majority of 20-somethings', not least in its extraordinary quality.