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Pop Aye

Official Selection - Sundance

It takes gumption, or downright foolhardiness, to shoot a début feature in a foreign land, let alone one that depends on a giant animal in the title role. Yet, Singaporean writer-director Kirsten Tan has pulled off Pop Aye with candour and laid-back aplomb. A road movie set in Thailand, where a burnt-out architect tries to take his elephant back to their rural hometown, this unpredictable detour from city life is anchored by a script filled with characters who, despite reaching the end of the road, find ways to make peace with the world.

Warm yet unsentimental, graced with the lightest touch of surrealism, this fictional journey is both authentically off-the-beaten-track and something more metaphorical, with the elephant Pop Aye (played by Bong) gradually assuming a significance on the level of Rosebud.

Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) was the architect of Gardenia Square, a landmark high-rise in Bangkok. Now that his boss’s son has taken over the company, the flabby and unkempt middle-aged sad sack is being put out to pasture. Moreover, he’s an unwanted member in his own designer home. That his huffy wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) finds him wanting in bed is something he realizes while rummaging through her personal gadgets – a scene that exemplifies director Tan’s delicate balancing act between gentle pathos and piquant irony throughout her film.

As he wanders the city in a daze, Thana spots a street hustler with an old elephant, which he recognizes as Pop Aye, his childhood companion back on his family farm. As they say, an elephant never forgets, and this one is all ears as soon as Thana hums a tune they used to share. Seeing the forsaken animal as a kindred spirit, Thana decides to take it all the way back to his village in Isan province, where he plans to hand the animal over to his uncle for care.

As the duo amble toward their destination, they run into a number of drifters who are also past their prime, with episodes in the story connecting karmically to one another. These experiences augment a journey that is neither the pleasant escape nor spiritual quest that many road movies set themselves up to be. When not hitching rides or dodging officious cops, man and animal walk till they collapse in the sweltering heat. While Pop Aye appears out of place no matter where they travel, Thana makes perching on an elephant’s back look as uncomfortable as lying on a bed of nails. When the odd pair finally reaches their village, it’s not the tearful homecoming that confirms the country life’s superiority over urban existence. Rather, Tan equates the inexorable pace of economic development with the ineluctable passage of time, climaxing in a publicity video of the shiny new project replacing Gardenia Square.

The predominantly nonprofessional cast, probably chosen more for their engrossingly rugged features than their acting potential, do their jobs with deadpan inscrutability. The true pro of the cast is Bong the elephant, who gives the right expressions on cue and looks genuinely affectionate towards humans.

– Maggie Lee, Variety

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Directed by: 
Kirsten Tan
Running Time: 
Thailand, Singapore
Thai with English Subtitles
Taneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak SIrkul, Bong the elephant
Official site: 
Screenplay by: 
Kirsten Tan

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