Pop Aye (2017)

Review #1,434

Director:  Kirsten Tan
Cast:  Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul
Plot:  On a chance encounter, a disenchanted architect bumps into his long-lost elephant on the streets of Bangkok.  Excited, he takes his elephant on a journey across Thailand, in search of the farm where they grew up together.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Screenwriting Award (Sundance)
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  M18 for sexual scenes
International Sales:  Cercamon
Singapore Distributor:  Golden Village Pictures

The most immediately striking aspect of Kirsten Tan's debut feature is, for me, her inspired use of music, of which there is a range of styles, and which often operates outside the diegesis (where the music is integral in creating the film’s tone of ennui, albeit a playful one).  Sometimes, the music becomes diegetic as songs sung or played are part of the characters' world. 

The soundscape is fantastic, one of the film's less celebrated triumphs.  Those with a keen ear may notice that the mobile ringtones used in the film have a carnival-like quality.  Of course, the main twangy-sounding music, reminiscent of Ry Cooder's extraordinary work in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), is a fitting accompaniment to the free spirit that is the road trip movie, but in true essence, reveals an inherently Thai aural styling of whimsicality. 

In that vein, I see Kirsten's film as no more Singaporean than it is Thai (the language and setting it was shot in), and by dual extension, of Southeast Asia.  Likewise, it is no more Southeast Asian than it is world cinema.  It has a strong flavour of the world, evoking the mysteries of life and the universality of human connectivity.  Perhaps this was why Pop Aye won the screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival, the very first time a Singapore film has competed and won an award at the festival. 

With a story about a disconsolate man, Thana, and his elephant, Popeye, Kirsten's work is about both discovery and recovery, through the dialectic of past memory versus present experience.  Thana, as played with mild-mannered sincerity by Thaneth Warakulnukroh, is in a state of stasis, a mid-life crisis with problems in his marriage and career. 

His present is fraught with uncertainty, but through the chance encounter with his long-lost elephant, he is afforded a rare trip down memory lane.  In the process of recovery, he is blessed by the beauty of his gigantic, graceful friend, and comes across a few interesting if random characters.  One of them, Dee, a ‘homeless’ man, gives Pop Aye its core emotional arc, without which the film would have lost something critical—a human connection unlike Thana’s friendship with Popeye. 

If I may quote from James Gray’s new biopic The Lost City of Z (2017): “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward”.  For Dee, it is the chance to rekindle a dream; for Thana, it is the chance to rediscover himself.  For Popeye, the patron saint, it trudges on despite merciless conditions.  A Bressonian Balthazar to Thana, a kindred spirit to all.

Verdict:  Kirsten Tan’s largely positive feature debut is a road trip with quirks and caprices, backed by inspired twangy-sounding music reminiscent of Wenders’ Paris, Texas.  


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