In Kirsten Tan’s debut feature film Pop Aye, two misfits make their way in a world they don’t belong, with nothing but time as a witness to their journey. Well, time, and the other outsiders they encounter on the road who illustrate life’s simple gifts as well as its unbelievable sadness. That’s not to say Tan’s film drowns in the existential, but rather offers viewers moments of true compassion that are often found in the most mundane of circumstances.
Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is losing his purpose and prestige at his Bangkok architecture firm. His legacy, a multipurpose building built in the city’s downtown is being torn down. During an interview on a local news channel we learn that the building also represents a connection between him and his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul). But Bo, too busy on her phone, misses Thana’s sweet words. Like the building, their relationship is marked for destruction. It’s during a particularly low moment that Thana drives past an elaborately costumed elephant and his owner in the street. Struck with the sudden impulse that usually accompanies the depressed, Thana purchases the elephant. He renames him Pop Aye, the name of an elephant companion he had as a child (and yes, named after the cartoon character). Thana is convinced it is the same elephant all grown up. The two embark on a journey back to Thana’s hometown to deliver Pop Aye to Thana’s uncle, Peak (Narong Pongpab).
It would have been easy to turn this film into a Disney-esque display of fuzzy sentimentality. After all, elephants embody a profound amount of gentle warmth and huggable cuteness. However Tan let’s Pop Aye’s (real name Bong) presence imbue every frame without calling out attention to him with anthropomorphisms. His slow gait down the road matches that of Thana; they are two companions very much dependent on each other.
While Pop Aye represents the joy of aimless wandering, Thana’s journey is one filled with more purpose. Not only to get Pop Aye back to his uncle, but to help a homeless man fulfill a lifelong desire to see his “wife” again, and offer friendship to a trans prostitute at a brothel/Karoake bar. The two characters represent life’s sadness but also life’s ability to throw opportunities for compassionate action our way. Thana’s decision to act on the opportunities displays the transformative nature of the classic road trip.
Legacy is a theme that runs through this film. Thana’s career, but also the homeless man’s last attempt to reach out to a lover before the timely death he believes is written in the stars. The most sobering aspect of time and legacy in this film comes when we see Thana’s hometown. No longer does it possess the cultural representations of Thailand, like a community sitting around one TV outside with Popeye blazing into the night. Instead, it consists of western high-rise apartment complexes. Each family in their box, cut off from the world. It’s a far cry from Thana’s youth as well as his communal philosophy when designing his all-purpose buildings. Thana is angered by his uncle’s greed at selling the land for the complex, but by the final scene of the film, Thana and the viewer are forced to confront the passage of time that has occurred not only during the duration of his journey, but indeed the changes that have been creeping in to Thana’s world for years. An invisible force changing everything in its path.
Pop Aye is a meditative first feature that appears surface level but requires some reflection on the part of its audience. Like most journey’s, the real experience is found in the viewing, not the destination.
Pop Aye opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.