Recently, in reviewing the 14-hour La Flor, I suggested that most films that are very, very long achieve their great length in part by trying to make themselves deliberately unpleasant and hard to watch. Here we have a perfect case in point: An Elephant Sitting Still is three hours and 54 minutes long (so let's just call it four hours, moving forward), and something like three hours and 47 minutes of those are agonisingly unpleasant. The remaining seven minutes - half of that time taken up by the end credits scroll - are all at the very end, so the one nice thing that the movie does is to end on its solitary expression of hope, and in fact scrambling to find and preserve that tendril of hope in the midst of despair is very much the point of the whole feature. It is, in fact, an optimistic film, I think, though one whose optimism is hiding at the tail end of literally hours of wallowing in depression.

The length is one of the two things every critic is obliged to point from the start. The other is that An Elephant Sitting Still was the first feature film directed by Hu Bo, and it will be his last: the 29-year-old killed himself shortly after completing his cut of the film late in 2017, and before it premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. And while I think it's cheap, tasteless, and reductive to say that this "feels like" a film made by someone who was prone to suicidal thoughts, this much is undeniably true: An Elephant Sitting Still is about chronic depression in a way that few films are about anything at all. Everything that happens in its narrative, the way that it's shot, the way that it's cut together, and yes, the way that it's four hours long, are all pointing in exactly the same direction: to create a cinematic viewing experience that replicates, aesthetically, the subjective feeling of depression. It is the choice of every individual viewer whether this sounds like something they might possibly be interested in subjecting themselves to, but the least thing I can say is that it's an entirely successful version of the thing it wants to be.

The title comes from a legend that we're given right at the start: in Manzhouli, a northern Chinese city on the border with Russia, there is said to be an elephant that never reacts to the world; it's not bothered by anything people to do it, or made upset, or hurt. It simply stands still, implacable. This is enough to make Manzhouli the promised land to four people living unhappily in and around Shijiazhuang, experiencing lives that are steadily worsening both materially and emotionally. The elephant doesn't represent happiness, merely the absence of feeling, but to our protagonists, that's enough. And so we spend time with them over the course of a long day: Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a bullied high schooler; Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), the older brother of the same bully, hospitalised after Wei Bu semi-accidentally shoves him down a flight of stairs;  Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), a classmate of Wei Bu, on the run from a miserable home life; and Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), an elderly man whose children want to dump him in a nursing home. Some things happen, but mostly the day is full of a kind of aimless emptiness, in which each of the four are given full room to feel how pointless and miserable their lives are.

Four hours is a whole lot of this, which is of course exactly the point. The film portrays the depression felt by the four leads as something like an irritating droning noise, something that's uncomfortable in a very small way, mostly noteworthy for how it just never goes away; it is a film about being in a grey fog where there is no forward movement, no sense that forward movement is even possible; it's just an endless stretch of the same irritating drone, unchanging and hopeless. I am not sure if the 4-hour An Elephant Sitting Still puts that choking sameness across any better than a 3-hour An Elephant Sitting Still would, or a 2.5-hour one (or a 5-hour one, for that matter), but the fact that the film seems agonisingly long relative to its content is what's important. If you do not, at least once across the running time, think to yourself, "oh my God, why am I still watching this, why isn't anything happening, why is it so long?", the film is not doing its job properly.

Same thing with the way it's assembled at the level of individual scenes and shots. This is a film of long, usually static takes, with characters shuffling slowly through compositions that are generally very beautiful, but rigid and formalised in a way that makes the characters feel locked into flat planes (this is a movie that lives and dies on a strong, impereable break between foregrounds and backgrounds), pinned down by the film frame just as much as by the life circumstances. And needless to say, all of the images in the film are largely in shades of grey or muted blues.

In the mid-2010s, Hu studied underneath the great Hungarian slow cinema miserabilist Tarr Béla; that mentorship is extremely obvious in An Elephant Standing Still, which has several of the hallmarks of a Tarr film (long takes, fatiguing monochrome, willfully forces the audience to feel restless and bored), but stripped down the barest level possible. This is a stylistically limited, repetitive movie: there are only a handful of kind of shots, and just a few types of camera movements, and by the end of the first hour, we've seen pretty much everything that we're going to see at least the next two hours. And this, too, is part of the overall point: these characters are in a rut, it feels like nothing will ever be new for them, and so on and so forth. It's a punishing, brutal slog, which makes the subtle final scene have all the more impact and emotional force; but it takes an extraordinary amount of work to get to that final scene. This a quintessential example of a film that I greatly admired and cannot imagine recommending to anybody in the world. It's long, it's bleak, and its hurts like hell to see the pain that Hu was feeling turned so perfectly into an aesthetic object, knowing how his life ended. Still, it's a deeply empathetic work, full of nothing but generosity and care for its characters and all they're suffering through, and that's a lovely and wonderful thing, to the exact right kind of viewer.