Review: Pop Aye

The titular elephant in this Thai film is named after the iconic cartoon sailor, though I can’t really fathom the title’s unconventional spelling. In a way, the linguistic disconnect expands on the movie’s sometimes jarring juxtaposition of universal themes and local particulars. The hero is a successful architect, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), who is going through the usual mid-life crisis (failing marriage, loss of direction, etc.) and one day happens upon a man trying to move an elephant along a Bangkok street. Convinced the elephant is Popeye, his childhood pet when he lived in the deep countryside, he buys the animal off the man and sets out to “bring the elephant home” on foot. In other words, Pop Aye is a classic road movie of self-discovery except that we have no insight into the mindset of one of the members of the entourage.

Several times during the movie, the director, Kirsten Tan, suggests that the elephant isn’t what Thana thinks he is, but this subtext of self-delusion becomes inseparable from the general feeling of total incompetence. Thana may have once been a good architect, but he now seems lacking in basic motor skills and common sense. Through flashbacks, we learn that even at work he has become little more than a figurehead at his company. The young bucks are running things. Similarly, Thana’s relationship with his wife is thwarted more by his inability to communicate directly than by the usual breakdown of affections that accompany a longterm romantic partnership. Thana’s pathetic, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for him.

Consequently, the misadventures that characterize the road trip through hot and dusty countryside are difficult to comprehend from a dramatic standpoint. It’s obvious Thana is longing to recapture some of the simple joy that he remembers from his childhood, but nostalgia is a fickle mistress: she only reveals what her lover wants to see and hear. It’s thus a pleasant turn of events when Thana meets Jenny (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender woman, in a roadside bar who seems to complete Thana in ways other characters, including his wife, do not. There is no sexual tension but, especially in a moving scene where they perform a karaoke duet, a shared feeling of being different and, in each other’s company, relaxed with that feeling. Encounters with other interlocutors—a suicidal drifter, Thana’s uncle who raised him, presumably in an indifferent manner—are much less consequential, though that may be an unintended result of Tan’s underwhelming directing style.

Through it all, the elephant (named Bong, who, interestingly, gets top billing) is mostly a cipher. Even animal lovers will have a hard time finding him cute or endearing. He’s a vehicle in more ways than one, a means for Thana to confront his own obsolescence as a man and member of society. Elephants get a pass in Thailand, apparently, and Popeye expresses no particular feelings toward Thana that we can discern. His presence is merely grounding and calming, as if Tan were afraid Thana by himself was too distressing a figure to focus on.

In Thai. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Pop Aye home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Giraffe Pictures Pte Ltd., E&W Films, and A Girl and a Gun.

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