“You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” says a sympathetic stranger in the opening scene of Pop Aye (not to be confused with Robert Altman’s 1980 failed attempt to pay tribute to a beloved cartoon character). This astute observation serves to frame the atmosphere for the remainder of the film as a straight-laced fuddy-duddy is shown a glimpse of an unconventional realm, in a sort of Something Wild experience in which Melanie Griffith’s part is assumed by a former circus elephant. Singaporean writer-director Kirsten Tan’s debut feature takes its time, offering glimmers of eloquence rarely captured by first-time filmmakers.
Seasoned Bangkok architect Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) has succumbed to disillusionment, particularly after his former boss’s son takes over the company he works for, threatening to erase everything he’s slaved his entire life to establish. While wandering the streets of the city he once loved, he spots a familiar face: an elephant who was once his childhood pet. Clinging to anything that can connect him to his past, Thana sets out on a journey across Thailand to return the titular beast to the farm where he spent his youth.
Much like many other films to come out of that corner of the world, Pop Aye isn’t meant to be bought at face value. It takes place in a dreamscape that always finds itself a few shades away from reality. Viewers – even those who aren’t well-versed in world cinema – are likely to get sucked in by the absolute strangeness of it all. This film is the sort of parable that doesn’t normally grace the multiplexes on this side of the globe. It’s refreshing to tackle a story that is more than meets the eye. By amplifying the absurdity that already exists within the world, the film offers a much richer discussion than it ever could if it were to simply focus on being consumed on a literal level.
Kirsten Tan excels as a storyteller when she opts for a swift examination of the seemingly miniscule aspects of the world she is crafting. Brief moments of unexpected humanity are sprinkled throughout Pop Aye, such as when Thana takes a moment to take part in a seed spitting contest with a young boy as the film is nearing its conclusion. It is these flashes of inspired awareness that allows Tan’s work to outshine the inferior efforts that are sure to be brought to mind for American audiences, such as The Straight Story and even the utterly ridiculous Larger Than Life. In this way, Tan’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker is her ability to paint a portrait that is consistently optimistic without falling into the territory of hokeyness.
Tan (along with editor Lee Chatametikool, who has played a key role in several notable films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) manages to tastefully intersperse flashbacks to Thana’s past in a way that never feels tiresome. This is not a Forrest Gump type situation; we are very much planted firmly in the present. But the memories of Thana’s younger days help to reveal a more complete image of his character, namely by focusing on his carefree spirit before he had been displaced by the soul-crushing corporate world and subjected to a loveless cohabitation with his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul).
Any discussion of this film would be incomplete without mentioning the stunning efforts of director of photography Chananun Chotrungproj, who beautifully showcases the vastness of Thailand. Whether we are in the crowded heart of the bustling Bangkok, the dimly-lit bathroom of a seedy bar, or the endless stretches of lush farmland, Chotrungproj displays a visual prowess that exceeds the limitations of the camera in order to create lasting, serene images. The snapshot of the road coated with busted melons deserves as much credit as any other aspect of this film.
For every halfway decent ‘animal movie,’ there are at least a dozen that use cheap emotional manipulation to try and distract viewers from realizing how little substance they possess. Kirsten Tan circumnavigates our expectations of the subgenre, largely due to the fact that her creature is much more of a catalyst than it ever is the film’s sole focus. Pop Aye is a promising debut from an undeniably soulful filmmaker. We could use more movies with Tan’s approach to exploring the power of nostalgia, in a way that is indulgent but never to the point where it loses its grasp on the importance of looking toward the future.
Pop Aye will have its US Theatrical Premiere Wednesday, June 28 at Film Forum in NYC