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“Searching for the Elephant” is a film every bit as odd as its bizarre title may suggest. Whilst on the surface it may sound like a fairly straightforward, controversy baiting exploration of the sex lives and generally immoral behaviour of well to do Korean thirty-somethings, writer producer director Jung Seung Goo actually turns in something surprisingly subversive and unpredictable. Of course, though the film’s many graphic scenes of sex, drugs and other excesses are still to an extent its raison d’être, it also has a more tragic reason for being noteworthy, in that it features actress Jang Ja Yeon (“Boys over Flowers”) in her last role before she took her own life.
The plot revolves around three men who were childhood friends, a neurotic photographer (played by Jang Hyuk, “Rabbit and Lizard”), a top plastic surgeon (Cho Dong Hyuk, “I Hate You, but It’s Fine”) and a shady financial consultant (Lee Sang Woo, “The Road Home”). Each of them are embroiled in their own personal problems, most of which involve the many women in their lives, money troubles, addiction in its various forms, and other assorted flavours of existential angst. Things inevitably start getting worse, and their friendships are put to the test when they become involved with each others’ affairs and women, leading to tragic and strangely ironic consequences.
To get the most obvious question out of the way first, yes, there is a great deal of sex in “Searching for the Elephant”, most of it graphic. Director Jung throws in plenty of nudity, both male and female, and things do get pretty kinky in places, with some fetish scenes and racy costumes. Although this is all played very casually, its made clear early on that sex is simply an integral part of these characters’ lives and indeed identities, and as such none of this ever really comes across as gratuitous – not least due to the that the cast are good looking to a fault, whether clothed or unclothed. The film is certainly a very adult affair indeed, with a lot of drug use, in particular marihuana smoking, and even some bloody violence towards the end. Although she does not play a major role, the presence of the unfortunate Jang Ja Yeon does give some of this a tragic, unsettling air, especially with her being involved in a gruesome suicide scene.
Thankfully, the film is more than a mere piece of glossy titillation, with Jung clearly having something to say about the empty, hedonistic lives of Korea’s rich and lusty urbanites. This having been noted, it is a little hard to figure out exactly what his message is, as the film is long, meandering and not really about anything other than the characters’ lives and half assed self destruction. This is not helped by the three protagonists being interesting rather than likeable or believable, with the script often heading off into obscure, drug fuelled soliloquies. Given that the film does show a certain sense of humour throughout, it is frequently hard to tell whether it is supposed to be laughing at its characters in mean-spirited fashion or if it is simply unintentionally amusing – not that it matters, as its quirkiness certainly serves it well.
Indeed, the film is determinedly void of any driving drama or tension right through until the final act, when things do finally come together. The film runs a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes, and this might seem to indicate that some judicious editing were needed – however, it remains weirdly compelling throughout, mainly due to Jung’s use of bizarre flights of fantasy and surrealism. The film is packed with wacky, often meaningless moments, including a gory sniper shoot out, a character hacking his fingers off to prevent him from using the phone, and a hilariously literal depiction of sex on the brain.
Adding to the air of lunacy is Jung’s hyper-stylised direction, which combines CGI effects, fast editing and some creatively insane digital zooms, with the camera flying around unrestrained and getting into all sorts of places that it probably shouldn’t. Although this is a bit over the top at times, it does make for some imaginative scenes, and this helps to keep the viewer distracted from some of the film’s less successful aspects. As might be expected, the proceedings do have a rich and expensive look, and the film is visually opulent and fittingly decadent, giving it the feel of a particularly sleazy piece of guilty pleasure eye candy.
“Searching for the Elephant” does make for delightfully immoral fun, and should be enjoyed by open minded viewers. Filled with excesses both in terms of its male leads’ sexual antics and director Jung’s cinematic techniques, it stands as a bold and quite unique outing, with a distinctive, if often inexplicable character of its own.
Jeong Seung-goo (director) / Jeong Seung-goo (screenplay)
CAST: Jang Hyeok, Jo Dong-hyeok, Lee Sang-woo, Lee Min-jeong, Jang Ja-yeon, Hwang Woo-seul-hye