Movie Review

Pop Aye (2017) by Kirsten Tan

Original Name: Pop Aye

Director: Kirsten Tan

Runtime: 104 minutes

Language: Thai

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Kirsten Tan: A versatile filmmaker with a penchant for bold visual storytelling, Kirsten Tan’s works straddle a range of genres, but are consistent in their humanity and off-beat humor.

“I do remember it was very common back [in Thailand] to see elephants roaming city streets begging for money and that image always struck me because it is very sad to see an animal as majestic as an elephant and yet you see him right in the middle of a concrete jungle. It is sad and yet at the same time there is also something surreal about it, how this elephant is removed from his natural environment to live amongst man”

Pop Aye is another road tale about a man and his pet, except, you know, the pet this time is an elephant. The production of this film is a curious case, Kirsten Tan, a Singaporean, directs this Thai-set story based on the tow years she was living there in her early 20s. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s outlook to make the story that feel distinctively the place it sets (we have more example of that later on this project). Suffered from a mid-life crisis where he’s being oppressed in both at work and at home, Thana (Thanete Warakulnukroh) bumps into his childhood elephant and decides to make a trip, on foot, to bring the animal back to his hometown. It’s not much about the elephant, but more about him, to make sense with this trip. Tan has a knack for putting this straightforward story an offbeat and somewhat surreal tone. The image of a man walking with his elephant, is both striking, whimsical and distinctive. As two halves of the narrative, both Thana and the elephant Popeye have a strong chemistry together. Although Popeye hardly expresses anything, as time passes where can see him a gentle and sweet creature. The most notable scene, as such, is the long take on Thana slowly climbing up to him, as he keeps raising up one of his leg so that Thana could step on it.

As typically in road movie, along the way the duo encounters various characters and each of them add something extra to the table. A bum, the police, a trans, a long lost crush, Thana’s uncle. This is where I could say Tan has a eye for depicting this part of Thai that we don’t see much on screen. Some of them aren’t realistic, like the part about a bum who strain many convenient plot points later on, but they are portrayed in such singular light that they add up nonetheless. All of them have their own stories to tell, and they’re fascinating as like they’re a central in their own narrative. The falling apart relationship between him and his wife, on the other hand, doesn’t develop into its full potential. We could see the frustration, but don’t see much into their core of the relationship. Being said that, the line in the end, strangely sums up their trust for each other and the film’s narrative.

The editing, however, falls out of place sometimes. The segment where the elephant literally is in the room, for example, could flow much better if it is in an natural order, instead of cutting back and forth as a flashback like this. There’s a bit of a bitter tone regarding the modernization whether it’s the hectic pace in the big city Bangkok, or his uncle selling their own land for apartment, or whimsical bit about the Buddhist priest accepts credit card, Pop Aye is a celebration of a stripped down life, where life is simpler, where money doesn’t mean much and where people (and elephant) can connect to each other more wholeheartedly. Moreover, this road trip is pretty much a trip for Thana to take a step back to his crisis, to reconsider everything happening in his life and his relationship with others, especially his wife. Ultimately, Pop Aye is a worthy addition to this well worn road trip, and despite its inconsistency sometimes, it raises itself for it offbeat tone and offer a side of Thailand that I would love to see more on screen.