2018 has been a great year for first-time film-makers. Some of the best cinema created around the world has been produced by directors making their feature debuts. Whether those film are huge smashes such as Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born or Ari Aster’s Hereditary or surprise successes like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You or Bo Burnham’s Eight Grade. Add Thoroughbreds, Blockers, Wildlife, Skate Kitchen, Blindspotting to a list which goes on and on. Saving the best to last, Hu Bo’s first (and sadly final) film, An Elephant Sitting Still, is a modern masterpiece.

Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) deals with his parents’ poverty and his lack of future prospects through recklessness. When he pushes a school bully down the stairs, he must flee for his life. After witnessing his best friend commit suicide, local gangster Yang Cheng (Zhang Yu) must either do as his family wishes or break away. Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is sleeping with the married vice-principle of her school in order to avoid being at home with her mother. Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) faces a daily struggle to stay in his apartment and not be packed off to a retirement home. Their paths collide as they all seek a way out.

An Elephant Sitting Still is a huge sprawling epic which follows four protagonists during the course of one day through the same city. Clocking in at almost four hours, it never once feels drawn out or laboured. This is a miraculous feat given how self-contained the story is. Bo captures the apathy and disenfranchisement of several generations of people simply yearning for something better. As their paths intersect, a picture of modern Chinese life is formed. The divide in class is stark and seemingly unbreachable. Chao Fan’s cinematography beautifully captures the urban decay whilst lingering on their most intimate moments. An Elephant Sitting Still is a masterpiece and a new benchmark for 21st century Chinese cinema.

An Elephant Sitting Still is in cinemas from 14 December.