An Elephant Sitting Still ★★★★

It’s tempting to think of “An Elephant Sitting Still” as a suicide note written with blood in a dirty patch of hard snow. Hard to sit through and impossible to forget, this torpid four-hour anti-drama is suffused with the sort of hopelessness that cinema only sees every once in a long while (Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” and Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” come to mind), and the man who made it — a former student of Tarr’s — killed himself before the world premiere of his monolithic first (and last) feature. His name was Hu Bo, and he was 29 years old.

Hu had reportedly been feuding with his financiers, who wanted to cut the running time in half. But to presume the role that may have played in his death would be as problematic as assimilating Hu’s suicide — which inevitably casts a long shadow over the film — into the fabric of the film itself. His memory will always be inextricable from his movie (and vice-versa), but it would be painfully reductive to conclude that one of those things is able to explain the other. Even if Hu had every intention of writing his will on-screen, there was surely more to him than can be divined from his work. And even if “An Elephant Sitting Still” can be read as one man’s self-immolating act of surrender, to do so would be to ignore the film’s compellingly fraught relationship with the politics of survival in a no-hope nation.

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