Some men buy sports cars when they hit a mid-life crisis. In this comedy-drama, Thana (Warakulnukroh) buys an elephant. Thana is an architect whose magnum opus, the mixed-use complex Gardenia Square, is about to be demolished. He is made to feel less-than-relevant at the firm which he co-founded, and his relationship with his wife Bo (Sirikul) has hit a rough patch. One day, he spots an elephant being paraded through the streets, its owner charging tourists for photos with the pachyderm. Thana recognises the elephant as Popeye (Bong), his childhood companion when he was growing up on a farm. Thana buys Popeye and plans an epic odyssey to take Popeye back to the province of Loei where they both hail from. Along the way, Thana encounters colourful characters including the dishevelled Dee (Khumdee), who lives out of an abandoned filling station, and Jenni (Sukkijja), a transgender woman who works at a seedy roadside dive bar.
Pop Aye is the directorial debut of Kirsten Tan, who became the first Singaporean filmmaker to win an award at Sundance. In addition to taking home the Special Jury Award Screenwriting at the prestigious indie festival, Pop Aye also bagged the VPRO Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Anthony Chen of Ilo Ilo fame is an executive producer, with his label Giraffe Pictures being one of the production houses involved in bringing the film to fruition.
Pop Aye is unlike any Singaporean film before it, and the audacity of the production is highly commendable: the dialogue is entirely in Thai, which is neither Tan’s first nor second language; it’s shot on location in a mix of rural and urban areas in Thailand; and of course, there’s the formidable logistical challenge of placing an elephant in roughly 90% of all the shots. Speaking before our screening, Tan joked that she thought that having an elephant as a main character would be charming, and by the time she realised what the actual production would entail, it was too late to back out.
There are many films about middle-aged men dealing with a personal or professional rut in ways that are eccentric, self-destructive, or a little of both. When Thana finds his life making less and less sense, he gravitates towards something that reminds him of his formative years, a simpler life far from the city. One of the themes that drives Pop Aye is the quest to regain innocence lost. Tan juxtaposes the sweetness inherent in the ‘a boy and his X’ genre (think E.T., The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon) with adult elements like sex and death. The fact that Thana’s own boyhood ended decades ago lends the film a gentle sadness. In some scenes, cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj presents the elephant with a sense of reverence, almost as if Popeye is Thana’s spirit guide. In other scenes, Popeye is picking pieces of watermelon off the floor or guzzling beer from a mug, and is presented as a more traditional cute animal sidekick.
Warakulnukroh, who is known mainly as a singer in Thailand, hasn’t acted in over 30 years. One would be hard-pressed to tell. He imbues Thana with everyman relatability, rendering the character eminently sympathetic. Thana is prone to acts of kindness, and his interaction with Dee is especially striking. Where others would be afraid or at least wary of the homeless man, Thana is friendly towards him, is keen to hear his story, and buys Dee food. At the same time, Thana is flawed and makes several questionable decisions. Because the character is as fleshed out as he is, we’re willing to go along with his journey, even when things get a little slow.
Like many other road movies, Pop Aye is episodic in structure. Therefore, it is a little challenging to form an emotional connection with the film. In the abovementioned ‘a boy and his X’ films, there’s always at least one moment of interaction between the boy and the ‘X’ that is indelible. We have Toothless and Hiccup’s first meeting, Hogarth telling the Iron Giant “you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be”, or Elliott bidding E.T. farewell, scenes which stay with the viewer for their emotional resonance. Pop Aye has scenes which approach this, but falls short of delivering a truly impactful moment, one that will bring a tear to the eye of even the burliest, toughest audience member. There is a brief flashback to Thana’s childhood – Popeye the Sailor-man happens to be playing on TV, giving young Thana the inspiration to name the elephant. Perhaps we could have spent a little longer with Thana and Popeye in their respective youths.
While Thana shows kindness to Jenni and we get the impression that she’s led a difficult life, Jenni serves primarily as a comic relief character. Pop Aye does not mock her outright, but the character does invoke how the transgender community in Thailand is misunderstood and ridiculed.
Pop Aye is offbeat, charming and warm, a film which was clearly a mammoth task to put together. It might not possess the sublime emotional purity of other films about the bond between man and beast, but to call Kirsten Tan’s debut “promising” is an understatement.
Summary: Pack your trunk and join Thana and Popeye on the road: it’s bumpy at times, but it’s largely a worthwhile journey.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars