By Jeremy Carr.
The first shot of Pop Aye (2017), Kirsten Tan’s feature film debut, shows the story’s two protagonists – the world-weary architect Thana, played by Thaneth Warakulnukroh, and the lumbering elephant Pop Aye, “played” by Bong – as they hitchhike along a remote stretch of road snaking through rural Thailand. They are, believe it or not, eventually picked up. At one point, the driver of their newly attained transportation (which, thankfully, has a bed big enough for a companion the size of Pop Aye), turns to Thana and comments that the older man doesn’t look like the type to travel with an elephant…whatever that type is supposed to looks like. The visual incongruity of this solitary individual with elephant in tow is obviously the quirky-curious selling point of Pop Aye, and while that odd situation sets the narrative on its course and pays off with a genuinely touching conclusion, the peculiar presentation of this lop-sided tandem is in itself a somewhat incidental means to an end. The unconventional man-with-elephant device elicits considerable humor, but for being such a prominent facet of the film, there is comparably less unequivocal passion.
Before getting to the where, why, and how of Thana and Pop Aye’s excursion, Tan flashes back to the workaday despair of the primary human lead. Thana has an acrimonious relationship with his bitterly unsatisfied wife, Bo, played with bristling coldness by Penpak Sirikul, and he is disparaged by his younger and more opportunistic coworkers. Thana’s physical and spiritual fatigue is evident from his hangdog face to his shuffling pace. Then, like a majestic vision (the elephant is frequently treated to a luminous showcase), Pop Aye appears. As it happens, Thana used to own the elephant as a child, but had to sell him when he moved to Bangkok. He purchases the animal back, undramatically bids adieu to his stolid life, and sets off with Pop Aye for his home village in Loei Province.
Along the way, Thana encounters passing figures who expose the depths of his as yet undisclosed consideration and kindness. There is, for instance, Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), a grungy vagrant residing in a dilapidated gas station, and Jenni (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender female prostitute. The side quest characters yield minor misadventures for Thana, and in these moments, as Tan favors a more resounding social dynamic, the significance of Pop Aye dissipates a good deal, despite his looming presence. Tan knows the limitations of this man-elephant rapport, and so wisely conveys Thana’s more emphatic potential by having him connect with these social outcasts who have likewise reached the end of the line and the end of their rope.
Though the human relationships are more perceptive in terms of practical viewer identification, with Tan charting a course of tragedy, pervasive loneliness, and unfulfilled promise, there is no denying Pop Aye’s impression on Thana and the film generally. The elephant is a charming oddity, and the sheer ubiquity of this massive creature is endearing and comic. Adequately framing this irregularly-sized duo in a way that is both balanced and appealing is no easy task, and this is where Tan and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj are at their best, in these scenes of literally distanced humor in wide-shot: Thana and Pop Aye walking with a sense of absurd normalcy; an unaccompanied Pop Aye trekking along, pulling a single shopping cart behind him; Thana vigorously struggling to mount the static beast. Tan also banks on the inevitable strangeness of the sight by cutting away to predictably bemused reactions from dumbfounded eyewitnesses.
Given it is of vital narrative importance, the bond between Thana and Pop Aye also needs to take on weighty emotional worth. In this, the film is less successful. Chalk it up to perhaps the unwieldy representation of the two in shared shots of contact – it’s hard to register both faces in a full, single image – but their mismatched size just isn’t conducive to compositional proximity. Similarly, while some critics have assigned Pop Aye a certain degree of charisma (and indeed, elephants are supposedly capable of human emotions), Pop Aye naturally bears little in the way of persuasively affecting engagement. Even on just a superficial level, the elephant simply isn’t a soft and cuddly pet and Warakulnukroh doesn’t do enough to demonstratively project the necessary compensation. He comes closest when he has direct, physical interaction with Bong – tending to the elephant’s injuries, feeding him, bathing him, etc. – but compare their relation to that of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in Kes (1969) and his beloved kestrel. The titular bird is likewise reduced in its expressive capacity, but Bradley’s impassioned performance impressively prompts the interspecies kinship and powerfully suggests its mutual consequence. This is rare in Pop Aye. It can be a delicate balance, though, and to Tan’s credit, she never goes for easily manipulated soppiness.
Ultimately, Pop Aye is most effective in its depiction of a despondent individual and his midlife crisis, and as far as that goes, Pop Aye is more symbolic than anything else. Thana relates to the oversized mammal (he says they are both “old, fat, and homeless”), and the elephant poignantly represents a youthful joy that now seems a lifetime away for the downcast traveler. But on this figurative level, even when the film concludes with a resonant reveal, it testifies more to the disillusioned disposition of Thana than it does to the actual status of Pop Aye as a character – elephant or otherwise. The sudden appearance of Pop Aye is clearly the inspiration of the film’s storyline, the impetus to get Thana from one place to the next (moving at “elephant speed,” as one character notes) and to launch this introspective road trip, but because the true potency of Pop Aye the film is essentially independent of Pop Aye the animal, the inclusion of the inordinate creature feels somewhat contrived, an unnecessary excess.
A recent NYU grad, Kirsten Tan completed seven short films prior to Pop Aye. As the first Singaporean film selected for Sundance, it won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section earlier this year. It also garnered the VPRO Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Pop Aye is a light and enjoyable movie, and Tan’s choice to transmit the humor and anguish with a deadpan timbre, often accented by a comically twangy score, establishes a manner that works both for and against the picture. As noted, the comedy benefits from the reserved delivery, like a stand-up’s droll punchline, yet that detached inflection also carries over to the more meaningful moments. On the subsequent downside, as in the films of Wes Anderson, the tonal eccentricity sometimes gets in the way of unaffected emotion. Still, the positive middle ground to all of this is that Pop Aye is at no time exceedingly schmaltzy in a Disney sort of way, which is why the finale works as well as it does; there was never a strained build-up. It just happens.
Pop Aye is no grand adventure. It isn’t really meant to be. It’s about a man and an elephant (mostly the man) as they seek simplicity and peace. “Fuck everyone else,” Thana tells Pop Aye. “From now on, it’s just you and me.” That’s a sentiment I can get behind. It’s not a very pleasant world out there (Thana condemns Bangkok as a city that sucks you in and spits you out), and if this elephant is enough to set someone on a path to happiness, so be it. Even if the hulking animal is an emblematic figurehead for some existential remedy, that’s fine. Whatever it takes. In the end, maybe we could all use an elephant like Pop Aye.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.