A story as foreign in location as it is in concept, Pop Aye relates the journey of a disillusioned Thai architect who one day while strolling the streets of Bangkok, purchases an elephant he recognised from his childhood.
Distressed by the demolition of his life’s architectural work in a shopping mall redevelopment and by the distance shown by his wife, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukro) sets off on a pilgrimage with Pop Aye the elephant to his birth settlement in the Loei province, hoping to find some redemption on the way.
Setting out weary of the world and hopeful of a better life away from the bussle of the city, writer and director Kirsten Tan ensures that we live through Tana’s eyes, engaging empathy with the characters met on the way. Pop Aye differs from your average road movie however, and not just because there’s a big fucking elephant involved: the humour is exceptionally dry, gentle breaks in the serenity provided by two dull cops who resent travelling at ‘elephant speed’ and a Buddhist monk with a card reader for Visa. Much of the humour of the film actually comes from a shared sense of absurdity with the main character, strange experiences and gnawing annoyances piling up throughout the film until the resolve where we sit back on the sand with Thana and expel all the confusing clarity of his road experience with a chuckle.
Despite the films absurdist humour, every interaction provides warmth and with it a reassurance of common humanity. That’s not to say every interaction is positive, Thana goes through the mill on his journey home. But the characters which come and go all the way to the journey’s end are captivating to the point you are sad to leave them behind. One criticism however would be the failure to spark any interest of this level in Thana’s wife, Bo, who after a long absence from screen, returns to bring some bittersweet finality to this emotional expedition, a somehow unfulfilling conclusion for myself, but apparently not for Thana. Happy for ya mate.
The film deserves special recognition for its seamless inclusion of a very large mammal on screen. Not only is the logistical management of such a feat impressive, but that the sensation of seeing Pop Aye appear never lost its magic once is an incredible exercise in patience from the director. The soundtrack from Matthew Kelly adds to the air of fever dream-like enchantment and brilliantly complements Thana’s spirit with steel guitars and brittle sounding strings.
A surreal and charming experience in equal measure, this film guarantees a new perspective for any viewer and adds beauty to the mundane in a way I have never experienced on film. Tan has done Singapore exceptionally proud with this first feature-length creation and we can’t wait for more.
By Rowan Lees / @rowanlees