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By Leni De Castro

Directed by Seth Grossman

The Elephant King, written and directed by Seth Grossman, is about the struggle that we must all go through in life. It is the relentless striving to find the self that is shackled in the dizzying chains of years of conditioned parental, societal, and environmental standards that misdirect to control rather than guide. This movie goes beyond the subject matters of brotherhood, motherhood and family and love affairs. It seeks to tell the story of the human struggle that is ongoing within us all and how family and brotherhood become the final refuge when all else fails.

The story sees two American brothers find shelter in the flickering lights of the endless sleazy nightclubs, barrooms and folk houses of warm Chiang Mai, Thailand. Jake Hunt (Jonno Roberts), a young scientist, must go back to the US to settle his fraud case, and his brother Oliver, who suffers from depression, whom he invites to come over, is sent by their rather overbearing mother to bring his brother back home. Jake, in his drunken state, bullies his way repeatedly into situations that keep him increasingly confused and get him deeper into the hole that he’s dug for himself. He goes to a Thai boxing ring, seemingly to claim his death wish. He drives a motorcycle unprotected while shouting expletives through the streets of his paradise. He gets himself drunk or stoned every day.

Meanwhile, Ellen Burstyn’s accessibly human performance is outstanding, and she does exactly what a regular mother like Diana Hunt would do in her situation. Often on the verge of panic, she eventually has to confront Oliver and admit that she needs his help. The father of the family is scrawny, too old, and probably wasted but pushed them, encouraged them to look for themselves and have fun doing so. If he had exerted himself more for his family, their current problems probably wouldn’t have arisen. But the mother, in complete sincerity and faith in what she believes in, dominated not just the kids, but the father as well, while younger brother Oliver (Tate Ellington), a struggling writer, would repair the cracks that were already breaking them apart.

Jonno Roberts and Tate Ellington star in The Elephant King
Jonno Roberts and Tate Ellington star in The Elephant King

Often rousing and sometimes alluring, the Thai temptation for weakened souls often proves to be too strong. And for both Oliver and Jake, it has completely consumed them. They have fun, excessive fun, liquor and sex and drugs all in excess, but life inevitably comes to collect its dues. For Oliver, the elephant of the title symbolizes Thailand, a devil disguised as refuge for lost souls like himself and his brother. Owning an unwanted elephant (“unwanted” in the sense that the landlady forbids them from keeping the big trunked baby out of the rental compound) and falling in love with the beautiful Lek (Florence Faivre), who was hired by Jake to give Oliver a “good time”, gives him a euphoria that he has never known in his life – one that shames party drugs, one that could release him, or rather seduce him out of his depression. It’s as though Oliver is releasing his pain in a Thai lantern set to sail in the wind. A pool of empty floating bottles mirrors our two leads drowning in the pleasures of Chang Mai. They float by untidily, while Oliver smokes his cigarette on a plastic air-bed.

But the problem goes much deeper in this psychological drama, with most fingers pointing to mother or to a system that overstresses the young by expecting them to do as their parents or as society wishes. In The Elephant King, Jake is to be the system’s initial victim, becoming suicidal, but this will force Oliver, in the end, to choose between cradling his own depression, and throwing everything aside to save his brother.

The actors are exceptional, with the brothers in particular doing outstandingly well, which may explain why The Elephant King won Best Film, Best Actor and other awards in many a film fest across the United States. The feature is innovative in the use of its Thai location. Its atmosphere – decadent with drugs, prostitution and self-indulgence – is well introduced and proves effective in helping the makers emphasize the contrasts that push victims from their clean and neat American streets to the dark and wild aura of Chang Mai on the other side of the world. On the whole, the movie is honest and convincing enough thanks to the work of director Seth Grossman, who utilizes great visuals, sound and editing, along with great actors and some superb technique, to create a winner.

Watch The Elephant King on (Thailand only)

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