I’m not a big fan of films with animals in them. Their employment in the medium is overwhelmingly careless and cynical. Animals are used to draw out audience emotions based on their perceived “innocence” amidst the all-too-human antics of the main cast. All too often, their safety is placed in question to elicit audience concern when human characters are too dull or inconsequential to merit similar concern. Elsewhere they make claims that a dog can consistently make jump-shots, and that’s just setting up unrealistic expectations. So I entered Pop Aye with some degree of trepidation and, for the first hour, I was pretty sure I’d have another example of a movie that incorporated animals for the wrong reasons. But then, somewhere along the way, something changed. And it was good. And that’s a pretty appropriate revelation in a road movie.
The film introduces us to a middle-aged architect, Thana, at a pivotal moment in his life. His first major construction, a sleek, modern urban mall is being torn down to make way for a new project, ironically named ‘Eternity’, that’s sleeker and more modern. The realization that even something as literally concrete as a building can fall out of fashion and merit replacement has filled him with doubt about where his life is headed. Thana’s boss, who gained his role by merit of being the owner’s son, is younger than him and schmoozes clients with hip ease while cutting Thana out of the process like an embarrassing older relative. Meanwhile Thana’s wife seems to have grown tired of him, at least in part because Thana himself has grown tired. But then Thana meets an elephant being paraded around the streets of Bangkok for the entertainment of tourists. He recognizes it as Pop Aye, the orphaned elephant he helped save as a youngster. Suddenly filled with a new purpose, Thana purchases the elephant and decides he’ll bring it back to Loei, his rural, childhood home.
This all sounds pretty typical of the road movie genre: a man at a moment of existential crisis; an unlikely partner that elucidates his thoughts; a literal journey from a Point A to a Point B; and a host of unusual characters he encounters along the way. For much of its duration, I was waiting for Pop Aye to beat me with some trite lesson about “finding yourself” while exploiting the elephant for emotional manipulation and Thailand’s lush flora for some transitory sense of exoticism. There’s a little of all that in there, but the film’s thesis manifests with greater nuance than anticipated and is healthily embodied by both the elephant and Thai setting.
Pop Aye marks Kirsten Tan’s feature debut. The Singaporean director has several short films already under her belt but I can’t claim familiarity with them. The interviews and features I’ve seen about her don’t give any insight into influences or artistic predilections but the now New York-based based director spent her 20s in Thailand, where she developed knowledge of the language and culture. The cast is comprised almost entirely of non-professionals, cast for the characteristics they already embody than their skill as actors. Playing Thana, Thaneth Warakulnukroh is a familiar performer to the people in Thailand, but as an emissary of prog-rock rather than an actor. Meanwhile Bong, playing Pop Aye, is a large herbivorous pachyderm.
The film explores its environment at a leisurely pace, taking its cues from the elephant that occupies so many of its frames. There’s no great sense of showmanship here. Instead the film comes alive through the simple, well expressed performances of its cast, whose puzzlement at encountering a man journeying with his elephant might easily be channeled through their own odd adventure of being in a movie. Tan’s great strength manifests in her editing and structuring of the film, which pieces together the thesis through flashbacks that arrive, unheralded, in swift cuts that marry past and present, transforming both.
The elephant isn’t the only odd beast in this movie. Thana’s own journey doesn’t quite reflect the usual run of inspirational road movies. He of course does meet with a motley array of people on his journey, many of them social outsiders, but these encounters don’t quite function as learning experiences. Thana meets with a man who has cast off society entirely and lives in an abandoned gas station. The man foresees that his own death is close but Thana convinces him to indulge his last dream. It won’t end quite right. Thana is interrupted by a pair of police officers who are not quite bungling, but are unimpressed at the task of having to shepherd this man and his unlicensed elephant to a sanctuary. They represent the law but their authority is fussy and pointless. They’re almost more sympathetic for having to deal with Thana’s absurd quest than the other way around. As for religious authority, an idyllic rural Buddhist temple can provide escape from the rat-race, and they accept VISA. A transvestite prostitute bonds with Thana and ruminates on his own fading glory, embodied by a younger woman working the same dingy karaoke bar. Seemingly immune to growth opportunities, Thana can’t resist a bathroom hook-up with the prostitute’s bitter rival. Pop Aye documents as many boneheaded misfires and selfish own goals as it does warm interactions between vulnerable humans. Although not entirely apparent all the time, the film gently subverts expectations. It’s not free from sentimentality but it always comes with some kind of unexpected counterbalance.
The great turn in the film is how Tan turns the film from an isolated series of events in Thailand into a more defined humanist treatise. I’ll give warning here of a minor story spoiler, which can be skipped over with this paragraph. All this time, as Thana navigates obstacles, even as things don’t always work out the way he’d like, he is fueled by a perceived duty and history with his elephant friend. With this buoy in place, Thana’s complaints about the injustices of time and “progress” surely hold merit. That is, until his uncle casually mentions that the elephant isn’t Pop Aye at all. The walls collapse, but the elephant remains in the room, so to speak.
Now the decision to use an elephant quickly separates itself from cutesiness and audience manipulation. The elephant is nostalgia enlivened. It plods along finding sustenance here and there. It slips Thana’s shackles, wanders, and gets lost. It is indifferent to Thana’s needs and he alone charges it with the power to lift his stupor. Thana sold that elephant many years ago, to fund his move to Bangkok and to prosperity. He discarded that elephant as part of “growing up” but then was overjoyed, when life was getting him down, that he could find it again after all these years and reclaim his childhood.
Throughout the film, Thana has maintained an idealized vision of his youth- happy days in Loei’s verdant rainforests. He returns to find that modernity has changed Loei and scolds his relatives for swapping wooden huts for air-conditioned condominiums. Of course as an architect, he is literally the engine of such change and he embraced it until the fruit of that labor seemed sour. Of course, his own elephant was named for the American cartoon sailor, who Thana grew up watching on the village’s communal television. So the elephant was always hedged somewhere between a bucolic Thailand and an encroaching, western-infused modernity. Pop Aye is at once familiar and playful and Thana’s but all the while it is also unfathomable and beyond his control. It is something separate of him that he has projected his own needs onto. In the end he will learn to live with this elephant and also with himself.
Pop Aye may not be a game-changer, but it quietly asserts a clear-eyed and mature vision of transience and malaise. In doing so, it marks out Tan as a creative force worth monitoring. Apparently even as jaded a viewer as I can still learn a thing or two from animal movies. Seeing a CGI cat struggling to open a bottle of brandy in last year’s Nine Lives felt like it must have been some kind of lesson too. We’re all grappling for control in the face of chaos but we must own whatever we decide to do. Although this film also reminds us that if we’re gonna use an elephant as a vehicle for our dreams, there are associated license fees. Worth bearing in mind.