The Elephant On The Bike Review

Among a substantial number of independently-made first feature films from new young Korean directors in recent years, The Elephant on a Bike stands out as one of the most promising. Its story is simplicity itself – a young man who works in a zoo, handicapped with a false hand, finds a way forward through memories of his childhood that have been evoked by a chance encounter with a young female schoolteacher on a visit to the zoo – but the key to the film’s success is in how first-time director Kwon Yong-kook manages to tap into his characters’ formative influences and through them manage to open up a wider perspective on Korean society and attitudes.

It’s no secret that Korean national cinema has been in the doldrums recently – or at least in a period of transition and redefinition. It’s had its share of domestic and international boxoffice successes, with blockbuster genre hits like The Host, The King and the Clown and D-War, and the country’s internationally acclaimed arthouse directors continue to maintain a strong worldwide profile – Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, Hur Jin-ho, Im Kwon-taek, Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong all still achieving some measure of success at the major film festivals. Commercial considerations and screen quotas however have reduced the opportunity for new talent to make a similar breakthrough, resulting in safe investments in genre action movies, war movies, and romantic comedy clones of My Sassy Girl and The Classic.

There are signs of a revival and a much needed injection of new talent however, with the last couple of years seeing a number of promising new features from young independent filmmakers - Park Heung-shik’s Railroad, Kim Young-nam’s Don’t Look Back, Kim Tai-sik’s Driving With My Wife’s Lover and Lee Yoon Ki’s Ad Lib Night. Not since Hur Jin-ho’s One Fine Spring Day however, has a Korean film managed to so subtly tap into that Yasujiro Ozu-like sense of relationships between individuals and families and the social circumstances that they exist within with the same sense of mood and understated emotion as Kwon Yong-kook’s The Elephant on the Bike.

Dong-kyu (Yang Jin-woo) works as a zoo-keeper but, perhaps because of his own disability – he has a prosthetic right hand - he has a particular affinity with the elephants, who seem to be able to overcome their lack of dexterity with the use of their trunks. Dong-kyu however has other problems – he’s from a relatively poor family and, with a disability as well, he isn’t considered a good enough match by the parents of his girlfriend, Yoo-ri (Park Hyo-ju). Feeling alone and detached from the world around him, Dong-kyu has grown up morose and introverted, drinking heavily and spending a lot of time on his own. One day, a school group visits the elephants at the zoo and Dong-kyu becomes acquainted with the pupils’ young teacher, Ha Kyung (Kim Jung-hwa). A simple comment made by the young woman about the elephant’s ability to use their trunks gracefully, triggers off a deep reaction within Dong-kyu, stirring memories of a young girl he spent time with at school and setting off the realisation of how his relationship with his father has been a formative influence in his life. The sentiments that this awakens within the young man, when he is facing a difficult time in his own life and at a time when his father is ill, are however difficult to come to terms with.

The Elephant on the Bike deals with evocative and highly emotional material, but first-time director Kwon Yong-kook handles it with the utmost delicacy and precision, never letting the familiar elements of disability, illness, and romantic entanglements slip into the realm of melodrama. In this respect, the film works very much with the intangible in a manner that recalls very strongly the simplicity and deep emotional content of Hur Jin-ho’s early films, Christmas In August and One Fine Spring Day, back when the director was often compared to Ozu. Kwon Yong-kook similarly has a manner of tapping into the relationships between families, generations and the social circumstances in which they exist, and through their struggles say as much about modern Korean society as they do about the individual.

As with the recent Korean film, Railroad, there is a sense in The Elephant on the Bike of vulnerable individuals and certain disenfranchised sections of the community who don’t have the same opportunities or aspirations for social advancement being marginalised by a Korean society that doesn’t know how to deal with them. Modern Korean society, it would seem - and it’s probably the same in most other developed nations - has no other way of measuring one’s sense of fulfilment, achievement and success other than by how well one marries, and how successfully one advances in a respectable career in relation to one’s classmates. This is certainly alluded to in Dong-kyu’s family circumstances. A poor family, Dong-kyu’s father owns a run-down bicycle store and works as a bus driver. Unlike Dong-kyu’s mother, who will try to hide their lack of education, his father isn’t proud, and will travel to work on a bike. Even when ill later in life, he insists on taking the bus rather than a taxi. The family’s circumstances however see them marginalised, and this has a strong effect on the children, Dong-kyu not being welcomed by the parents of his girlfriend, while his sister longs to make a match that will allow her to marry, move on and better fit into regular society.

What is marvellous about The Elephant on a Bike is how successfully the director manages to allude indirectly to such matters through a simple story of childhood memories and through the use of symbolic devices which are certainly original and unconventional. The inner turmoil experienced by Dong-kyu, the sense of being different and detached from those around him, is made manifest in the prosthetic hand he wears – it’s not there as a sentimental device to evoke sympathy in the viewer, it’s a symbol of his nature as an outcast and a "freak". The strongest images in the film however are, evidently, the use of the elephant and the bike, both of which feature prominently in the childhood memories of the young man, and are tied up in a complex way with his feelings for his father. The journey the film takes on a surface narrative level may seem deceptively simple, but in terms of the emotional journey it makes, the range it covers is impressive.

The Elephant On The Bike is released in the Korea by DK DVD. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 3.

Presumably on account of the film being a relatively small independent feature, the DVD transfer is, unusually for a Korean DVD release, non-anamorphic, but it is letterboxed at the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are some minor encoding problems that cause stepping in diagonal lines and some mosquito noise artefacts, but these are only evident in the rare isolated scene. For the larger part, the image is reasonably well-defined, with good colour levels and excellent tone. The transfer is however interlaced, which may also cause some motion problems on certain display devices.

The only audio option is the original Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, which is excellent and more than adequate for the demands of the film. The well-distributed sound works effectively as an almost surround mix.

English subtitles are included and are optional (Japanese subtitles are also included). The translation is excellent and I didn’t see any issues with grammar or spelling. The placing of the subtitles at the bottom of the image and just outside the frame however means that the letterboxed image cannot be zoomed for full widescreen viewing.

Extra features are not plentiful, but at least do not require English subtitles to enjoy. The Trailer (2:16) is fine, giving a sense of what the film is about, but not really capturing its mood or how it flows. It also gives away rather too much, taking you right through to the last images of the film. The Filler 30” (0:33) is a shorter teaser version of the trailer. A brief behind-the-scenes Making of (8:53) is also included, which doesn’t feature the usual interviews, but simply shows a number of scenes being set-up and filmed. There are no subtitles for any of the extra features, but none are really needed.

Korean cinema is going through a period of transition that makes it difficult for new independent cinema to break-through, so it is heartening to see new directors coming along who are willing to take chances and make small, personal, independent films that are not targeted at a multiplex audience. The Elephant On The Bike may not be as ambitious as Park Heung-shik’s Railroad in its attempt to examine the cracks in the Korean psyche and its society, but by remaining low-key and personal, it’s much more successful in achieving its modest aims. The Elephant on the Bike rather is a simple film that demonstrates the ability of the director to subtly work with intangible emotions and sentiments and relate them to the world around him. With these and a number of other recent new films showing a willingness to confront the circumstances of the individual within modern Korean society, the future of Korean cinema at least looks promising indeed.

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