It takes gumption, or downright foolhardiness, to shoot a debut 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 candor 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 big-city life is anchored by a solid 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 opening-night offering from Sundance’s world cinema dramatic competition is a joy for patient viewers, special enough to find a small but appreciated life beyond festivals — a fate heightened by the involvement of executive producer Anthony Chen (director of Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Ilo Ilo”).
Currently based in New York, where she studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts, Tan lived in Bangkok during her early 20s, running a T-shirt store in a street market, which gave her basic fluency in Thai to communicate with her cast and crew. She has also distilled her bohemian travels around the country into a fictional journey that’s both authentically off-the-beaten track and something more metaphorical, with the elephant Pop Aye gradually assuming a significance on the level of Rosebud in “Citizen Kane.”
Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) was the architect of Gardenia Square, a ’90s landmark high-rise in Bangkok. Now that his boss’s son has taken over the company and is aggressively trying to replace the outmoded building with a new mega-construction, the middle-aged man is being put out to pasture. Contrary to the popular image of architects as minimalist hipsters in Comme des Garcon suits, Thana is a flabby and unkempt sad sack who looks out of place in his slick office and is an unwanted member in his 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 Tan’s delicate balancing act between gentle pathos and piquant irony throughout the story.
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 he hums a tune they used to share. Seeing the trundling, forsaken animal as a kindred spirit, Thana decides to take it all the way back to his village in Loei, Isan province, where he plans to hand the animal over to his uncle Peak (Narong Pongpab) for care.
As the duo amble toward their destination, they run into a number of drifters who are also past their prime, such as Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), a shaggy-haired hippie who’s taken over a disused gas station, and believes his end is near, without any proof of it. Thana impulsively offers Dee the means to fulfill his lifelong dream. The unforeseen circumstances that take place later on underscore how episodes in the story connect karmically to one another. A pit stop leads to a brief encounter with Jenni (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a haggard transgender who sings at a roadside bar. A curious sexual frisson develops, throwing more light on Thana’s flaccid marital life.
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 Loei, it’s not the tearful homecoming that confirms the country life’s superiority over urban existence. Rather, Tan’s equation of the inexorable pace of economic development with the ineluctable passage of time climaxes in a publicity video of the shiny new project replacing Gardenia Square, ironically named Eternity.
The predominantly nonprofessional cast (except Sirikul and Pongpab), probably chosen more for their engrossingly rugged features than their acting potential, do their jobs with deadpan inscrutability. Warakulnukroh, a progressive rock musician in the ’90s, resembles Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui in his combination of snarky humor and world-weariness. The true pro of the cast is Bong the elephant, who gives the right expressions on cue and looks genuinely affectionate towards humans.
DP Chananun Chotrungproj tracks the trip up north to Isan, passing through the provinces of Chaiyaphum and Phetchabun with detached long shots depicting the Thai rural landscape in a plain, almost monotonous light. Her lensing of Pop Aye’s madcap actions, however, demonstrates genuine resourcefulness. Lee Chatametikool’s editing is a slow-burning buildup that culminates in a moving montage crosscutting between the careworn Thana and his carefree boyish self.