There is an elephant in the zoo at Manzhouli. It spends its days sitting, perhaps because it’s being poked by a pitchfork all the time, or it just enjoys sitting there. Everyone comes to see it, holding the bars of the cage. Some people throw food at it, but the elephant takes no notice.’ The opening monologue leads us into the 230-minute film An Elephant Sitting Still (2017) by the late Chinese novelist and filmmaker Hu Bo. The voiceover continues through a visual sequence of ‘sitting’, echoing the title of the film. The young man who speaks is sitting on the edge of the bed, half naked, murmuring to the woman lying behind him. An old man, wrapped in a pyramid of quilts, sits with his dog on a glassed-in balcony. A girl wakes and sits up, lost in the dawn light that seeps through the curtain. A schoolboy carefully wraps a rolling pin in duct-tape before sitting down at the kitchen table, where his father is grumbling about the stench outside the flats: ‘yet another lousy day’.

Composed mainly of scenes shot in single extended takes, the film will interweave the stories of these four characters within a single day in a gloomy town in Hebei province. The philosophical young man, Yu Cheng, is a semi-criminal car-dealer, rebuffed by his girlfriend and in bed with his best friend’s wife. The retired soldier, Wang Jin, is about to be dispatched to a care home by his acquisitive daughter and son-in-law. Seventeen-year-old Wei Bu stands up for his friend against the school bully, who turns out to be Yu Cheng’s brother. On the run after the bully falls down a flight of stairs, Wei Bu tries to persuade his classmate Huang Ling to escape with him to Manzhouli. But Huang Ling is having an affair with a senior teacher—and doesn’t yet know that someone has uploaded a video clip of the two of them at a karaoke bar. Meanwhile, Wang Jin’s pet is attacked and killed by a wealthy couple’s big white dog. The stories converge, the characters pushed towards departure by the toxic social relations in which they are enmeshed—but pulled, too, towards the idea of the enigmatic elephant in Manzhouli. Though it will remain unseen, the final scenes of the film show them en route to the frontier city.

In October 2017, the enigma of the elephant was overshadowed by the suicide of the young director. Hu Bo would never know that his film would enthuse critics at the Berlinale and take the Golden Horse in Taipei. When he hanged himself at the age of 29, he was in utter despair. In a file titled ‘The Death of a Young Filmmaker’, found on his computer, he documented his conflicts with the production company Dongchun Films. The producer—the well-known director Wang Xiaoshuai—rejected Hu Bo’s four-hour cut of An Elephant Sitting Still, insisting on halving its length.footnote1 For Hu Bo, this request was unacceptable, not least because it would destroy the integrity of the film’s long takes and dismantle its structure. When Dongchun Films took legal action against Hu Bo, the young filmmaker was presented with two options: either have the contract nullified with his name removed from the director’s credit or raise 3.5 million yuan—around half a million dollars—to buy outright ownership of the film.footnote2 Hu Bo wrote on his Weibo account, ‘Years have gone by, yet I’ve never thought about the question: what is cinema? Well, it is humiliation, despair, powerlessness, which turns a human into a joke.’footnote3 After Hu Bo’s death, Dongchun Films transferred the copyright to his parents.

The death of the filmmaker has had a muting effect on discussions around An Elephant Sitting Still, leaving it in splendid isolation, as silent as a centuries-old painting on the wall. We can no longer expect the director to illuminate it for audiences at q&as, elaborating on how the work was conceived and the problems he had to resolve in its realization. There will be no subsequent feature-length films to throw retrospective light on this early masterwork. In the absence of the filmmaker, the critic has to imagine that conversation, seeking clues as to the filmmaker’s intentions in the material he has left behind, while asking how far the autonomy of the film opens up a space that diverges from the design of its director. To begin to understand a painting, we may resort to its drawings, from primo pensiero—the first sketches of the design—to cartone, the final drawing, laying out the lines and shapes to be transferred to the prepared ground upon which the paint will be worked. In the case of An Elephant Sitting Still, we have a plethora of preparatory drawings. There is the screenplay, Golden Fleece—analogous to a painter’s modello—that was shown to prospective producers. There is an eponymous short story, which reveals some of the philosophical considerations Hu Bo had in mind. There is the shooting script—the underdrawing, which combines these two sources to create the current structure of the film. In addition, there are the many literary fictions that Hu Bo wrote under the pen name Hu Qian (qian meaning ‘to migrate’) in the last six years of his life: two novels, Xiaoqu [The Neighbourhood] and Niuwa [Bullfrog]; two novellas, Da lie [Huge Crack] and Yuanchu de Lamo [Farewell to the Faraway]; two plays, Xiju de yanse [Colours of Comedy] and Dida [Arrival]; and dozens of short stories and poems. This literary output provides an essential complement to Hu Bo’s unique aesthetic in cinematography.

Hu Bo was born in 1988 in Jinan, Shandong. Little is known about his family background, though we can speculate that his parents were not well off: they lived in a rented apartment without central heating near a high-speed railway station when a journalist interviewed them in Jinan, four months after the filmmaker’s death. Hu Bo started primary school at the age of seven, practising martial arts for four years outside the curriculum. At sixteen he failed the entrance examination to senior high school, and subsequently enrolled at a local school, where the only entrance criterion was a payment of 4,500 yuan (roughly $600) each term. While the school had little to offer academically, Hu Bo developed a keen interest in novels and films. Using a borrowed camera, he made a short piece about a disabled boy sitting by the window watching others play, until one day he throws down a paper plane, which is picked up by another boy, who carries him down to join the game. In 2006, barely eighteen and still in the last year of secondary school, Hu Bo left Jinan for Beijing, sitting in on classes and carrying sacks of dvds back to his rented room to devour at night. His dream almost came true when he received an offer from the Beijing Film Academy (bfa) on condition that he pass the general national entrance examination. But he failed it, and failed it again the following year. Instead he took up painting and then in 2008, under pressure from his family, enrolled in a local vocational school, the Shandong Communication and Media College—only to quit four months later.footnote4

It was not until 2010 that Hu Bo was finally accepted by the Department of Directing at the bfa. In his own words, at the age of twenty-two when most of his former schoolmates had already graduated from university, he became the oldest beginner at the Film Academy. Once inside, however, Hu Bo discovered to his disappointment that the bfa had undergone a commercial turn. Tutors championed Korean parodies of Hollywood and trained their students to remake popular genre films. Most of the short films that Hu Bo made at the bfa—including Hei tie [Black Iron], Tou he niunai de ren [The One Who Stole the Milk]—were marred by this approach, which he resolutely rejected as soon as he finished his degree, declining a commission to develop his 26-minute graduation piece Ye ben [Night Runner] into a feature-length thriller.footnote5

Four years at the Film Academy taught Hu Bo, if anything, what not to do in his art. When he graduated in 2014, unlike his classmates—most of whom worked on commercials or tv series—Hu Bo turned to writing, trying to maintain an autonomous space for artistic exploration. In contrast to the complex business of filmmaking, he found literary writing ‘controllable’, a ‘safe outlet’ that offered ‘the most powerful way’ to ‘confront the bleakness of the world’.footnote6 His fiction features two broad types: seekers and nihilists. The seeker stories can also be read as road stories: an alleyway full of rubbish bins where new graduates living in a rented bungalow struggle to survive; the path in the woods where two hunters find a bleeding girl they have shot by accident; a dog catcher’s itinerary in a residential compound at night; half-sleeping metro commuters passing a polluted lake that links urban and rural lands; a road on which a couple separate and reunite; the trail to an abandoned factory building, overlooking wheat fields; the dating address that can only be found through the memory of the previous rendezvous. These stories tend to start briskly and end abruptly, as if departure and arrival are nothing but a pair of brackets that gives form to duration. They show Hu Bo’s attraction to liminal spaces, which are often zones of transition—typically, from a place of despair to a place of uncertainty. Stylistically, the stories are almost anachronistically innocent and earnest.