The varying effects of an epidemic on a young vagabond and an older fisherman inform Woo Ming Jin's brilliant "The Elephant and the Sea."

The varying effects of an epidemic on a young vagabond and an older fisherman inform Woo Ming Jin’s brilliant “The Elephant and the Sea,” the work of a striking new voice on the East Asian film scene. Already a hot number on the fest circuit, Woo’s contemplative drama will find limited specialized distribution in the same locales where cult critical faves such as Tsai Ming-liang and Jia Zhangke have carved out niches.

Woo’s film makes a notable companion piece to Tsai’s latest, “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” which addressed the fallout from the SARS epidemic on a few lives in crowded Kuala Lumpur. Beyond the clear references to current Malaysian social ills, Woo’s cinema has absorbed some of Tsai’s dry ironies, his feel for the odd ways that people’s lives intersect and, certainly, a fascination with tropical fish.

Aimless young Yun Ding (Berg Lee Seng Wan) scrapes for cash by fishing at the shoreline and setting up road hazards with friend Long Chai (Cheong Wai Loon), then offering car repairs to unwitting victims. That guys like these must stoop to crooked shenanigans speaks volumes about the desperate conditions in the remote province, but an apparent fish-born disease (details of which are left out of narrative) makes matters even grimmer.

Just after the film’s title card appears onscreen at the 13-minute mark, aging fisherman Ah Ngau (Chung Kok Keung) is informed that his wife has died from the disease and his house has been quarantined. Forced to live with similarly displaced men in a shelter, this old man of the sea appears starkly out of his element, and certainly disinterested in whatever solace the sponsoring church group offers him.

Woo subtly but deliberately parallels Ah’s and Yun’s stories: Yun suffers his own loss when Long dies suddenly, leaving behind a grieving mom and sister, Su Ling (Ng Meng Hui), who seems to have an eye for Yun. Left without a partner, Yun must abandon the road hazard ruse and picks up work driving customers on his small motorcycle to a brothel.

Both Ah and Yun are offered false hopes that increasingly seem to mock their respective plights. In Ah’s case, it’s the stream of donated goods collected from locals; for Yun, it’s his fascination with a large flowerhorn fish, which an amusingly aggressive salesgirl (Tan Chui Mui) insists contains magical properties — including lucky numbers Yun can use to win the local lottery. But the Elephant (that is, Yun) responds quite differently to such tendrils of hope than does the Sea (Ah), who takes one look at the donations and pushes them aside.

Contact with the opposite sex prompts slight boosts for both Yun and Ah, but even here, Woo’s handling suggests any real pleasure or fulfillment is either fleeting or completely elusive. In two fine sequences in the brothel, Ah’s romps with different hookers ironically make the loss of his wife that much harder to take. Yun’s apparently romantic date with Su Ling also takes a sour turn.

Final cappers for these two — who never encounter each other — are at once slightly predictableand richly evocative.As a total cinematic creation from the fledgling Malaysian movement, “Elephant” marks a big stride forward from Woo’s interesting debut pic about domestic terror and police control, “Monday Morning Glory.” It also stands as one of the most resonant expressions of the strife and misfortune experienced by southeast Asia’s rural poor, but framed by an exceptionally developed–some would say demanding–aesthetic that stresses visuals over polemics. (Dialogue amounts to 10 minutes’ worth, if that.)

Perfs are kept spare and nearly expressionless, particularly on the part of Lee, while Chung has the vet fisherman in his bones. Ng ratchets up pic’s emotions at wonderfully unexpected moments, including one seven-minute sequence that’s a sustained gem of conflicted feelings.

Pic is consistently marvelous to watch, not only in terms of Woo’s patient staging but also his apt choice of long and closeup shots (superbly lensed in digital video by Chan Hai Liang). Language and music (Ronnie Khoo’s electric guitar tracks) are wisely kept to an absolute minimum.

The Elephant and the Sea

Malaysia

Production

A Greenlight Pictures production in association with Maveriq Media. (International sales: Greenlight Pictures, Selangor, Malaysia.) Produced by Woo Ming Jin, Tomoko Ueda. Executive producers, Chan Hai Liang, Gan Hui Lee. Directed, written by Woo Ming Jin.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Chan Hai Liang; editor, Kok Kai Foong; music, Ronnie Khoo; production designer, Lee Gim Weng; sound, Chee Kar Ching, Angyee Sian, Ng Ken Kin. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (Intl. Showcase), June 25, 2007. (Also in Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Seattle, Karlovy Vary, New Era, New York Asian, Vancouver, Santiago film festivals.) Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Berg Lee Seng Wan, Chung Kok Keung, Ng Meng Hui, Tan Chui Mui, Teoh Kim Wah, Cheong Wai Loon, Beatle Yap. (Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)
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