Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: The Elephant King

  • Written and directed by Seth Grossman
  • Starring Tate Ellington, Jonno Roberts, Ellen Burstyn, Florence Faivre, Pawalit Mongkolpisit
  • Limited release in Thai cinemas on January 15, 2009
  • Rating: 3/5

Fine performances and top-notch technical specs make The Elephant King a pleasure to watch, even if the characters are less than savory.

A cautionary tale about delusional expats overindulging in the Thai nightlife frames this portrait of family dysfunction.

Tate Ellington stars as Oliver, a depressed bookish wannabe writer who's working as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant in New York City. His older brother Jake (Jonno Roberts), meanwhile, has fled the States for Thailand. He's taken an educational grant and blown it on booze, drugs and women while living in the historic northern city of Chiang Mai. The men's mother, rather shrilly played by Ellen Burstyn, wants Jake to come home and face charges for defrauding the university. So at both Jake's and their control-freak mom's urging, Oliver heads to Thailand. Jake wants somebody to party with, but Oliver is supposed to convince Jake to come back.

The light and space of Thailand really put the zap on the boy -- along with the massive quantities of alcohol and pills the domineering, bullying brother Jake pours down Oliver's throat. Jake sets Oliver up with pretty bartender Lek, and meek little Oliver, who's never had a girlfriend before, falls hard for the exotic Thai-American beauty. She's played boldly by French-Thai actress Florence Faivre.

Thai girls in cheerleading outfits aside, the drama is quite heavy.

Nihilistic Jake is more depressed than he lets on, and to keep from sinking into the abyss of self loathing, he keeps himself on a strict drug regimen. To earn money, he stages fixed boxing matches with a transvestite boxer who's in love with him. After a night of partying, Jake buys an elephant from its mahout, and takes it for an early morning ride. The Thais look on at the crazy farang with disgust and pity. He keeps it at poolside at his apartment building -- much to the chagrin of the landlady, who has a "no elephants" policy.

Oliver is hopelessly naive, and clueless about inappropriate displays of affection. He buys a truckload of flowers for Lek that just embarrasses the girl.

Lek, meanwhile, has a Thai boyfriend, the bar's musician Daeng, and he's so jealous of seeing Lek with Oliver that he's forgotten the words to America's "Sister Golden Hair" (and really, who can blame him?). Daeng, by the way, is played by Pawalit Mongkolpisit, the real gunman from the real Bangkok Dangerous, and gosh it's great to see him again.

Back at home in New York, mom is worried sick, and just wants both her boys to come home. And their reprobate dad (Josef Summer), well he just wants to know how the "Thai stick" and the girls are.

What a family. No wonder Jake moved halfway around the world from them.

The movie is highlighted by scenes from around Chiang Mai, not just of the nightlife culture, but the historic temples, the city walls and nature sites as well.

And it's all lit beautifully by Spanish cameraman Diego Quemada-Diez. Editing, partly supervised by Thai ace Lee Chatametikool, is fluid.

It's hard not to pass up a chance to cut back and forth from Oliver and Lek making love to Jake and his ladyboy boxer trading blows in the ring.

The film is produced by DeWarrenne Pictures, and because it's a Thai company, they were able to a shoot a gritty, down-and-dirty tale that likely wouldn't pass muster if it were to have been made by a foreign-owned company that must have scripts reviewed by the Film Office. If it were a Thai director, there would be self censorship or glamorization. But this is not the case with the script by American writer-director Seth Grossman.

One remarkable scene takes place in a "fish bowl" brothel, where prostitutes wearing identical yellow evening gowns and numbered badges sit in rows on benches behind a window and wait for their number to be called.

"They look like zombies," the jetlagged Oliver says, shocked. It's the first place in Thailand his brother has taken him.

"They're watching TV," Jake explains.

But the scene of aged, baggy-eyed hookers, with their thick blue eye shadow, heavy rouge and grim, resigned expressions, is haunting. Oliver can't handle it and he leaves. Jake stays and calls out for the prettiest one -- No. 49 (none other than Ghost of Mae Nak's Pornthip Papanai) -- and with a small, barely perceptible grimace, she rises to go meet her customer.

None of the characters garner much sympathy, except for the elephant, played by a soulful-eyed pachyderm named Som. The elephant serves a metaphor for something, I suppose, which is left up to interpretation.

For me, it's that elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Yet it's there, and it needs a sackful of bananas to even make a dent in the huge appetite it has. Feed it, I say.

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