By Yue Jie
(870 words, 7-minute read) Spoiler alert! If you’ve not watched the movie yet, go see it before reading on.
Few films deal with animals as a central character, and even fewer have an elephant as its protagonist. In Pop Aye, the feature debut of Singaporean film director Kirsten Tan, an elephant called Bong plays a starring role in the film. A disillusioned architect Thana, played by veteran Thai actor Thaneth Warkulnukroh, has his design work on a new building declined by his boss’ son. Dejected, he drifts aimlessly on the streets of Bangkok only to stumble upon Bong, his long-lost childhood pet elephant, who is ushered along by a circus trainer. Without hesitation, Thana automatically whistles the theme song of the cartoon Popeye The Sailor Man to Bong, a cue that the elephant acknowledges almost immediately.
The sight of Bong gives Thana a sense of hope, where he decides to embark on a road trip and trace the path back to his hometown. On this journey home with Bong, Thana encounters several people that show the general trust and kindness among Thais, as well as of Thana’s own selflessness towards others. When he meets a homeless man at a gas station, Thana instinctively offers not only a sum of money but also his mobile phone for the man to contact his loved one. Such acts of generosity are not a common sight, and it certainly exemplifies the extent to which Thana is sincere. On the other hand, in a modern terrace house where he lives with his wife, Thana returns home and discovers a sex toy hidden away in her cupboard. With no children and a busy work life, one would understand that Thana’s wife feels lonely and sexually deprived. However despite an attempt to initiate sex, she rejects him violently and leaves him out with Bong.
Thematically, Pop Aye is a film that recognises the challenges of building a first world nation in a third world land. Thailand is still very much rural at its countryside but attempts to be cosmopolitan in the capital. This is reflected in the mentality of the film’s characters, where the wealthy try to make the world a better place for themselves, while the poor are not left with much of a choice and simply make do with their predicament. This depiction of the urban landscape in Southeast Asia cannot be more accurate, and is perhaps a realistic portrayal seen from the eyes of Kirsten, especially given that she spent a few years living in Thailand herself.
Lensed by Thai cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, Pop Aye also sets an example of having a woman behind the camera. From the streets of Bangkok to the rural village of Loei where Thana grew up, Chananun captures the Thai countryside with an air of simplicity as Thana slowly wanders along through long roads at elephant speed with Bong. From crowded and noisy roads in the city’s capital, the hustle and bustle of city life gradually become less noticeable when Thana heads to the villages. In shots that include Bong, which are practically almost every scene, the camera eﬀectively catches Bong in ways that manages to capture some form of emotion, most notably through the eyes. The relationship that Thana has with Bong is tender and affectionate, as both look out for each other in more ways than one. When Bong wants to let an exhausted Thana ride on his back, all it takes is a gesture that probably only Thana could understand.
Thana initially appears to be no different than any other old man. But as the film progresses, we see him as a figure of loneliness, trudging on day after day with an elephant by his side. With hardly a person around to speak to, Thana turns to Bong to voice out his thoughts and speak his mind. His emotional needs are acknowledged by none other than Bong, whose only response is to trumpet every now and then. As the pair finally arrive at Loei, Thana realises his home is no longer what he knew it to be, as an apartment block stands on the land that was once owned by his family. In another tragic twist of fate, Thana’s uncle, who still resides there, reveals that Bong had long passed away and that the elephant he has spent all this time with, is in fact not his childhood pet. Confronted with these new facts, the film concludes with Thana moving on with life begrudgingly and going back to find his wife, and to continue with life.
For a Singaporean filmmaker to make a film set not only in Thailand but also filmed in Thai, shows the boldness of Tan to venture beyond her comfort zone and her courage to overcome every adversity that would come her way. Furthermore, a road trip film about an architect and his beloved elephant is not the most common film one would expect to watch. A project that was several years in the making, Pop Aye is certainly deserving of its triumphs at the Sundance Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) this year, the first ever by a Singaporean. Warm, loving and sentimental at its core, Pop Aye is a film for the soul as a man attempts to trace back the origins of his roots no matter the circumstances.
POP AYE (2017) is directed by Kirsten Tan and runs for 101 minutes. It was released in Singapore cinemas on 13 April 2017 with an M18 rating. The film is in Thai, with English and Chinese subtitles. Prior to its Singapore release, it was screened at film festivals around the world, where it has won awards, including the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at the Sundance Film Festival.
Guest Contributor Yue Jie is a film critic and a filmmaker in Singapore since 2012. He has a Diploma in Film, Sound & Video from Ngee Ann Polytechnic where he learnt filmmaking, and ran the film club SGNewWave as its central film writer alongside his film studies. Now serving National Service, he is picking up German and intends to pursue a filmmaking degree in Germany. He has also done bits of acting in films and plans to make a career in the film industry.