Here is both an introduction and a final word. An Elephant Sitting Still marks the first feature of Hu Bo, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy who, in his near-three decades on this planet, somehow also found the time to become a much-admired novelist. Yet the shift in tenses in that sentence is, tragically, no mistake: Bo took his own life in October 2017, leaving us in the unusual (so far as this viewer can recall unprecedented) situation of watching a first film we also know will be its maker's last. A patina of sentiment might have become attached to a project like this, yet the film itself presents to us as resolutely unsentimental. For starters, it runs ten minutes shy of four hours long (as Bo apparently intended); it unfolds in a harsh, metallic-grey rural China, closer to the territory traversed by the generally critical Jia Zhang-ke than the state-sponsored pageantry of a Zhang Yimou; and its characters look to have had all the warmth and compassion panel-beaten out of them by a society being reshaped towards rampant self-interest. As filmed suicide notes go, it is defiant, confrontational, more "fuck you" than "help me" - though there's equally an element of "God help us all" in evidence during its more reflective and despairing passages.
A Short Cuts or Magnolia-like structure divides the four hours between four unhappy souls. Two are teenagers: a highschooler who leaves his abusive father behind and heads to a school where the teachers are as bullying as the pupils, and a female contemporary living with her lush of a mother. The third strand involves two twentysomething lovers carrying on an affair; the fourth a grandfather being put into care by a family who've determined they no longer have the time or space for him. It takes the best part of forty-five minutes to establish how these people might be linked, but by then Bo's made it very clear their future interactions are unlikely to be wholly positive. The old man has his dog set upon in a back alley and takes to walking around with a pool cue in his hand; one of the schoolkids reveals he's liberated a handgun from his dad's collection; the woman's husband comes home early one afternoon and, upon discovering he has been cuckolded, leaps to his death from a fourth-floor window. It is, shall we say, unlikely ever to be sold or seen as China's answer to Love, Actually; the film's festive release date in the UK presumably corresponds to the extra time cinemagoers are thought to have on their hands at this time of year.
Bo's literary background becomes evident in the way these stories knot up (the husband's death sets the lovers against one another, standing up to one bully improves nobody's life) and in his skilful threading of motifs: the titular creature, rumoured to exist in a small town where the residents prod and poke him like King Kong in New York, is but one poor beast in a script spilling over with bleak anecdotes about doomed cats and dogs. That script's sudden revelations are aided by a singular, fascinating camera choice that breaks with most of the conventions we associate with "epic cinema": we get four hours of close-ups on the main characters that relegate others to a fuzzy non-focus in the background, and (until the very last minutes) a steadfast refusal to provide anything that might resemble an establishing shot. It's a bold gambit that meshes with the film's themes and generally pays off: just as these shortsighted characters can't see much beyond their own lives, their own circumstances, so too we onlookers can't entirely see what's coming up around the bend for them.
If Elephant is never as predictable in its pessimism as it might have been - we keep an eye on it, if only because we worry just how bad things are going to get - it nevertheless goes down as the season's most demanding sit. Even before we notice the intimations of suicide dotted through the film like teardrops (defenestrating hubby is but the start), Elephant asks us to enter and then inhabit at length the imagination of a creative who saw the world as utterly lacking in joy, cheer or colour. Of all the film's demands, the greyness of its palette becomes the most oppressive: it's a concrete car park of a movie, and it takes at least three hours for Bo's camera to find some way out into the wider world. There's an unyielding quality about the film of the type one sometimes observes in self-righteous adolescents, and which might seem admirable, if it weren't also unworkable and to some degree insufferable over the long run. Bo's youthful missteps include the decision to set dog on dog as an entirely too on-the-nose metaphor for capitalism; we're reminded that Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros set loose a similar trope with far greater authorial verve.
Still, no release this year will have done more to earn the double-jointed adjective "uncompromising" - and it becomes no less uncompromising upon the realisation it can never be compromised, that its maker won't go on to shoot Huawei ads or one of those all-star Chinese Odyssey pantos that emerge each New Year to distract the masses. There is unarguable storytelling promise here - it's a long, bracing haul to an unexpected punchline - but also a sadness that Bo didn't stick around long enough to discover the solaces of this universe, the fact people come together to console one another in the face of systemic misery, the existence of life's safety nets. (In Satantango - and it's a sign of Bo's mountainous achievements here that it reminded me of this film, the K2 of cinema - that enduring miserablist Béla Tarr allowed his characters to drink, screw and dance: they were doomed, as we are, but they had that, at least.) There will be those who sit down over Christmas with The Greatest Showman or the Mamma Mia! sequel, and one can only wish those viewers well with that; perhaps this crushing behemoth of a movie, brought to the surface by a canary in the coalmine of China's regeneration, is the film we finally deserve at the end of 2018.
An Elephant Sitting Still opens in selected cinemas today, and is available to stream via the BFI.