One of the most ambitious feature debuts in recent cinema, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still is a daunting challenge for any viewer: not only does this nearly four-hour cri de coeur plunge audiences into the spiritual desolation of China’s industrial North, it also carries with it the tragic backstory of its director’s suicide at the age of twenty-nine. And yet, since its emergence at last year’s Berlinale, Hu’s passion project has become a source of inspiration, hailed as a testament to the vitality of personal cinema and winning acclaim from auteurs such as Ang Lee, Gus Van Sant, and Béla Tarr. Today An Elephant Sitting Still makes its streaming premiere on the Criterion Channel, and programmer Aliza Ma, who brought the movie to New York’s Metrograph Theater, offers some invaluable context on the rebellious era of Chinese filmmaking that gave rise to it and the sociopolitical turbulence that serves as the story’s backdrop. Check out the above excerpt from Ma’s introduction, in which she maps out the film’s intricately layered tale of four dispossessed souls who come together on a pilgrimage to Manchuria. Then head to the Channel to watch the whole film, programmed alongside Hu’s 2017 short Man in the Well.
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