The elephant is a lure and a metaphor, a teasing reminder of a natural wonder and creaturely variety that is otherwise barely in evidence. This rigorously bleak, powerfully absorbing feature — nearly four hours long, shot in subdued colors and slow takes — posits a world from which nearly all fellow-feeling has been drained. Envy, mistrust, manipulation and blunt aggression govern human relations. Pleasure is scarce.
Taking place over a single day and following the overlapping, increasingly desperate itineraries of four people, “An Elephant Sitting Still” encompasses two suicides, several beatings, a shooting and the death of a dog. If anything, this summary undersells the misery. Those periodic eruptions of violence are like bubbles breaking the surface of a steadily simmering pot. Cruelty and alienation go all the way down.
Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a handsome, hollow-cheeked midlevel gangster, is having an affair with his best friend’s wife. The friend comes home and discovers the adulterous pair together, and jumps out the window to his death. Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a student at a second-rate high school, plots revenge against the bully who torments and humiliates him. (The bully happens to be Yu Cheng’s younger brother.) Their plan fails, but also succeeds in the worst possible way. Meanwhile, Wei Bu’s classmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is involved in a tawdry relationship with a school administrator. Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), a retired military officer, is being pressured to move into a retirement home by his upwardly mobile son and daughter-in-law.
Their paths cross and recross, though not in the magical-thinking, we’re-all-connected style of the multistranded narratives — “Babel” and “Crash,” for instance — that were especially fashionable in world cinema in the early and mid-2000s. Even as Hu’s suspenseful, surprising story draws the characters toward one another, his somber, careful compositions emphasize their isolation and the social conditions that make solitude a protective strategy.
If there is occasional tenderness — between Wang Jin and his young granddaughter, or more tentatively between Wei Bu and Huang Ling — it seems fragile and fleeting, unlikely to survive brutal Darwinian reality. Everyone is expected to be selfish, suspicious, status-obsessed and mean, and most people live up to the expectation.
“An Elephant Sitting Still” shows the influence of Jia Zhangke, modern China’s cinematic laureate of disaffection and dislocation. (His new film, “Ash Is Purest White,” will open in North America soon.) But it also shows a restless and original visual sensibility. Unsparing as Hu’s anatomy of moral drift may be, there is something graceful in his sympathetic attention to lives defined almost entirely by disappointment and diminished hope. Unlike the titular elephant, the film never stops moving, and by the end, instead of feeling beaten down, the viewer is likely to feel moved as well.
But such catharsis is shadowed by the knowledge that this will be Hu’s only film — the ambitious and imperfect testament to a career that ended when the 29-year-old director took his life in 2017. It is, of course, a mistake to draw too literal a connection between that awful fact and the unhappiness onscreen, but it’s also hard to avoid the impression that this persuasive portrait of a society in crisis is also a deeply personal statement. An act of solemn, disciplined and passionate protest.