film note: The Elephant and the Sea

Last updated on November 29th, 2020 at 10:40 am

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✭✭✭ The Elephant and the Sea
Directed by Ming Jin Woo
1h 40min, Malaysia | Netherlands, 2007

The title is a joke; two jokes actually. The elephant joke is played mainly on the audience: This movie isn’t really about an elephant although we hear one come crashing through the bamboo at one point, after a long wait. When the Czech youths here at the festival figured out the jokes there was a huge cheer, and a couple boos.

This movie’s not really about the sea either, except in the way the Bible is about God, or the way the Wall Street Journal is about money. The sea is always there, ubiquitous in and indifferent to the lives of the Malaysian characters in this movie. So I guess the joke’s on them. They hate it, but they can’t live without it.

The main character, Yun Ding, hates fish. A joke is inadvertently played on him when he insists his noodles come without fish. Instead, they come with squid. Yun Ding isn’t havin’ it when the waiter tells him, “Squid are not fish.”

Clearly, someone gets the joke.

For a movie that spends so much time depicting boredom, and maybe even trying to induce it in its audience, it’s awfully funny. So when the punchlines come — often strange, and brutal punchlines, often arrived at after a narrative ellipsis — they are so funny, they’re sad. Similarly, the soundtrack consists almost entirely of ambient and naturally occurring noises. The film’s filigreed, acoustic theme punctuates exactly two happy moments; that too, is fucking sad.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that Malaysian-born, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is the Poet of Loneliness. Director Woo Ming Jin, who shares Ming-liang’s love of a static camera, carefully composed frame, and minimal dialogue, might be labeled the Poet of Boredom. They both make sad movies that will probably make you laugh, but of the two, I think Jin is the happiest.

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