The New Films: An Elephant Sitting Still Nominated By Gus Van Sant

A sad yet stunning production by a directing prodigy.

As the Discovery Issue, V117 features our cast of the latest and greatest ahead, as nominated by the cultural forces of now. This feature appears in the pages of V117, our Spring Preview 2019 issue, on newsstands today!

This spring, the acclaimed Chinese film An Elephant Sitting Still finally hits U.S. theaters, capping a tragic yet triumphant production that claimed rookie writer-turned-director Hu Bo’s life.

Hu took his own life in October 2017 at age 29 soon after completing the film, which revolves around four young people in Northern China who, feeling caged in by their own circumstances, kindle separate fascinations with an elephant at a nearby zoo. The animal refuses to eat or move, ignoring the reality of its existence. As their lives become intertwined over the course of a day, the chance of finding meaning in the middle of nowhere emerges.

“[Hu Bo] was a man in deep pain, struggling to fit in and upset that others didn’t understand what [that] feels like,” says Gus Van Sant, whose films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho similarly appealed to disaffected youth. “His film is a story between people in [a] community struggling with pain and fear and communication.”

Based on one of Hu’s own short stories, the film’s themes are more than a fiction for the millions of Chinese grappling with suburban poverty. If only he had lived, Hu’s own future might have been the opposite of his film’s cold outlook, given the way he managed to capture Hollywood’s imagination from half-way around the globe.

Born in Jinan, a metropolis in Shandong province, Hu attended film school in Beijing. In press notes published prior to his death, Hu voiced an estrangement from his generation: “All [we are] doing is posting, living up to labels, or hoarding hundreds of pictures, waiting for a chance to flaunt them. I’m not [disapproving] of these behaviors. However, the truly valuable things lie in the cracks of the world.”

Hu’s words, and his masterful debut, hold up a mirror to the chilling reality that, as once-developing nations pursue a new kind of “American” dream, late- capitalist anxieties are spreading. The revelations of An Elephant Sitting Still are bound to find even deeper resonance when Hu’s stunning, final film makes its stateside debut this spring.

An Elephant Sitting Still hits theaters March 8.

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