"If she was dead I wouldn't miss her and I wouldn't wish that she'd come back..."
Hyeon-woo (Jang Hyeok) is a photographer who has been friends with Min-seok (Jo Dong-hyeok), a plastic surgeon, and Jin-hyeok (Lee Sang-woo), a financial whizkid, since childhood. Living with the constant, gnawing regret of a past (albeit one-sided) love he let slip through his fingers, Hyeon-woo increasingly chooses to wallow in a drink and drug-infused haze just to get through the day; Min-seok's need for sexual gratification with as many women as possible is quickly becoming an addiction; and Jin-hyeok is close to having to flee Korea to escape prosecutors investigating his financial dealings.
As we join the film, Hyeon-woo is desperately trying to remove blood stains from the floor of his apartment before allowing two policemen to enter his home, and the question quickly becomes who has paid the ultimate price for the lifestyles that he and his friends have been living?...
In their youth, Hyeon-woo, Min-seok and Jin-hyeok were taken on a trip to the zoo by Hyeon-woo's mother and told that, should they get separated, they should meet at the elephant enclosure. However, on reaching the area, the boys found themselves in the midst of a sea of people with no idea of where they were supposed to meet. Scared and utterly lost, they knew that if they could just find the elephant, everything would be ok.
In adulthood, successful though they are, greed, obsession, addiction and the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and/or sexual gratification has almost taken over - a subconscious attempt to fill an unquantifiable void in their increasingly shallow lives - but though they've got older they certainly haven't become any wiser and deep inside they're still just three lost little boys searching for the elephant.
At its core, Searching for the Elephant attempts to be a searing dissection of obsession and addiction - a twisted (and deeply stylised) tale of hedonistic, self-serving immorality with lashings of social commentary thrown in for good measure - but ultimately it becomes the victim of its own excess, with director Jeong Seung-goo frankly trying to cover too many bases in his efforts to produce a film that is all things to all people.
Greed; obsession; hedonistic abandonment; addiction to sex, drugs and plastic surgery; lack of connection in the modern world; the difficulties of, and fallout from, living a self-serving existence in a big city; betrayal; revenge... they're all here, to a greater or lesser degree, and that in itself is one of the film's biggest stumbling blocks:
There is virtually no way that any single film could possibly detail this many aspects or subjects for commentary and give them the coverage they rightly deserve - each could have easily have formed almost a complete plotline in its own right - and, as such, they almost feel as though they've been included because they were on some kind of imaginary "social commentary sub-plots" check-list that needed to be completed, rather than because Searching for the Elephant really had something incisive, unpredictable and worthy to say about them.
Sadly, the problems don't end there, with the hugely stylised direction actually adding to the film's woes and ultimately detracting from what would otherwise have been a fairly gripping narrative:
About 50% of the visuals (mainly consisting of scenes shown from the perspective of Hyeon-woo's increasingly fractured mind) play like a Burroughs-esque drugs and sex-fuelled fest but while these are realised fairly well, in their own right, and even work successfully on a few occasions, they nonetheless feel largely predictable, rather unoriginal and more often than not forced, especially when compared to the latter stages' thriller that eventually unfolds.
It's not even that this is a case of style over substance because there really is significant substance here - just look to the film's conclusion for proof - it's just that a narrative such as this deserves more than music video imagery that says nothing more than the character's imbalance is growing. If you need an example, consider the scene where Hyeon-woo chases a girl who may or may not be the long-lost girl of his dreams, having to step over (without a second glance) the blood-soaked dead bodies of victims of a sniper in the mall, complete with utterly frenetic direction, camera work and rock 'musac' soundtrack. Never explained, you can choose to think "Oh, that's likely got a deep meaning", or you can see it for what it is below the gloss - a deliberate attempt to be visually controversial and striking, for the sake of it, which says (again) some have difficulty coping with modern life. Memorable this scene is, but more for the wrong reasons than the right.
And don't even get me started on Hyeon-woo listening to 'psychiatrist' Dr. Jang (Hwang Woo-seul-hye) telling him that she's come back from the future to elicit his sperm to save humanity, but not realising that she may not actually be telling him the truth. His subsequent surprise at finding out she's been lying to him all along is laughable, frankly, which I'm pretty sure wasn't director Jeong Seung-goo's intention.
Or should I mention the fact that the 'long-lost love' of Hyeon-woo's life is a girl he only met once for a matter of seconds? Probably not.
However, the one (again highly stylised) area that works like a charm and is utterly successful throughout is the depiction of sexuality and the sexual content present: There is a lot of sex in Searching for the Elephant, the majority of which is fairly graphic and deeply erotic, but it fits so well with the largest of the underlying themes and builds in parallel with the film's climax so perfectly that it never feels unnecessary or overly gratuitous - and, considering its repeatedly predominance in proceedings, that's really saying something.
As already stated, in the latter stages and conclusion of Searching for the Elephant the film finally becomes the incisive thriller it has been trying to be from the outset, and in spite of the aforementioned criticisms and reservations, is well worth holding out for.
The entire main cast give accomplished performances in Searching for the Elephant, especially Jang Hyeok as Hyeon-woo and Lee Min-jeong as his sister, Soo-yeon.
However, note must also be made of Jang Ja-yeon's superb portrayal of Hye-mi, one of Hyeon-woo's sexual conquests and subsequently spurned lovers - the one person who is truly in love with him.
Sadly, Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide on March 7th 2009, aged just 29. Her character's ultimate story arc in Searching for the Elephant is deeply uncomfortable as a result and holds a heartbreaking and undeniable poignancy.
Regardless of the failings of the film, her performance nonetheless stands as a tribute to a talented and beautiful actress who will be sadly missed.
Jang Hyeok, Jo Dong-hyeok, Lee Sang-woo, Lee Min-jeong, Jang Ja-yeon, Hwang Woo-seul-hye
Director: Jeong Seung-goo
A strong narrative storyline is sadly marred by overly stylised visuals and direction that largely feels forced and predictable. While certainly not a total waste, Searching for the Elephant is ultimately far less than the gripping, explicit thriller it so easily could, and should, have been.