The Elephant Keeper (Kong Liang Chang)

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol
Year: 1987
Starring: Sorapong Chatree, Ron Ritthichai
Time: 135 minutes

You know what I hate? I hate illegal loggers. They're raping the forests for their own profits, destroying the future for animals and people alike. It's not the villagers and forest dwellers who take a few trees to build their houses, or even to sell for a living - I understand their situation, and it seems like a reasonable co-existence with the land. It's the big corporate lumber-plunderers with their machines that can strip a 1,000 year old tree into planks in an hour... the ones who are getting fat and rich from their nature-piracy.

You know what I don't hate? Not much, admittedly, but definitely elephants. Elephants are super-cool because they're smart like Lassie but big like houses. They're also practically bullet proof, and they have super-long memories - get on the wrong side of an elephant and you'd better watch out, 'cause he'll still be holding a grudge 3 reincarnations later. If elephants were amphibious or could fly, they would definitely be the best animals in the world. Though gibbons are pretty amazing too.

What may surprise you most is that none of these are opinions I held just a few hours ago, prior to watching The Elephant Keeper. I like it when a movie not only entertains me but changes my view of the world. Not in a way which is ever likely to be very relevant to my life admittedly - though owning a pet elephant I can ride to work has moved considerably higher up my list of ambitions than it was this morning.

The Elephant Keeper is another movie from Thailand's premier movie-making royal, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol. It tells the story of an elephant keeper and his elephant and a group of forest rangers, desperately trying to fight against the groups of illegal robbers pillaging the forests of Thailand for profit. It's something of an environmental movie, with the beautiful locations and nature photography making all the more effective the point that thoughtless plundering of the forests is going to screw up the country/planet. It doesn't just lay the blame on 'bad men' for this though, it tacitly glances at the political and social reasons why people are driven to this kind of livelihood. Though admittedly, "being a bad man" does come at the top of the list.

The movie is 135 minutes long, paced fairly gently and smoothly. It's told as the recollections of one of the rangers, 20 years after the events it covers - though narration is sparse. The recollections are an explanation of why this particular forest is never pillaged for logs anymore - it's believed that it is protected by an elephant who will kill anybody that tries. The ranger says that he knows this to be more than rumour because he's met the elephant, and knows why he protects the forest.

The movie features some good performances, particularly by Sorapong Chatree (the guy who wasn't the sister-in-law in "The Sister-In-Law") and his elephant - who is as large, powerful and smart an elephant as you could hope to cast in your movie. It's a fairly bleak tale, set against the backdrop of a land that's already been heavily deforested and the economic problems that brings for people used to living in and off the forest. The more the forests shrink, the less work there is for an honest elephant keeper and his beast. The group of rangers assigned to protect the forest are a pitifully small bunch to protect such a huge area from the bands of well organised and armed forest-robbers. It doesn't help that they have to hand the men they capture over to the corrupt police force, who immediately let them go again. It's not a good situation for a good man to find himself in, but I guess everybody would be good if it were that easy.
Prince Chat directs the movie with skill again, developing his characters and his narrative confidently and subtly. He also makes great use of the locations and the camera, and there are beautiful images throughout. Sadly the DVD is not of great quality, though it's a much better transfer than The Sister-In-Law. It's full frame, but that appears to be the OAR because the image never feels cropped. The VCD has English subs as well, but is also full frame.

A good movie, that receives my recommendation but may not be to everyone's tastes.

Rating: 10/10