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Elephant and the Sea's long shots, empty stares, uncomfortable silence is so 1994. For fans of Asian art cinema, Woo Ming-jin's latest feature holds no surprises.
After contributing to Godard's short-lived, third-world, guerilla filmmaking in Vent D'est, Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha would say that too many young filmmakers were headed into Godard's same anti-aesthetic territory, a place where the easy implosion of beauty supplants an ideal of aesthetic productivity. And it is like this with most artistic overcrowding: when too many cooks start putting their multitude of hands over the same boiling stew, it's time to bow out and sharpen the knives for a new kind of dish. With Woo Ming-jin's Elephant and the Sea, a regretful product of the forthcoming Malaysian New Wave cuisine, one sees a perfect example of a guy who's in over his head, cooking with eyes closed, sweat on his brow, and desperately hoping to avoid burning his meat by muttering prayers to his patron saints of Jia Zhang-ke, Tsai Ming-liang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. What emerges is an over-cooked, rhythm-less, top-heavy film that really just functions as a paint-it-by-the-numbers pastiche.
One of the most obvious problems with Elephant and the Sea is its Xerox-affection for Tsai, with its slow portraits of a young, Malaysian would-be Antoine Doinel, constantly slurping hot restaurant noodles with blank expressions; and an old man who mechanically and ineffectually sputters around wherever the director places him, whether in the depths of a jungle or rubbing up against a prostitute. The film also tries its hand at Tsai's distended foreground/background, wide angles, but ends up collapsing upon itself because it can't help from immediately divulging all of its secrets; or rather, the film has no secrets beneath those blank stares and silent pauses, just a series of empty, overwrought clichés.
By the end of the film, with its ridiculous, hatched chick-a-dee of hope, there is only the debris of scattered, unlovely, colorlessly colored digital images left behind. None of the elements ever connect meaningfully with one another; there is never a happy correspondence of rhythm that keeps the film afloat. What one does see clearly is this element of cinematic overcrowding -- that embarrassing moment when the market is so flooded with the same mass-produced, art-house flower-print dress that every other woman at the party seems to be wearing. Perhaps it's time to abandon the safety of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, and find newer and more dangerous images by disobedient children who have left their cinema du papa behind.
Date Posted: 7/13/2007