MPAA Rating: unrated
for brief language and a disturbing image
Runtime: 204 minutes
Directed by: Kirsten Tan
Cast: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong
It’s tempting to describe this film as “midlife crisis with elephant,” but that’s a bit too flip and disrespectful of the message of Pop Aye, whose main plot event is a long walk back home for elephant Popeye (Bong) and his former childhood playmate Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an aging architect being pushed out of the top designer spot in the Bangkok company where he’s spent his career.
They’re both misfits, these two. While Popeye (yes, named for the cartoon character) literally doesn’t fit anywhere in a city, Thana is experiencing a double emotional whammy: not only have his ideas been declared too old for his job, but his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) is sexually unsatisfied and barely tolerates him as well.
One day Thana sees his old friend Popeye on the street in the hands of a street hustler. He immediately buys the animal and plans to escape his unpleasant reality by taking Popeye back to the small town of Loie, some 300 miles away, where they both grew up and his Uncle Peck still lives.
The film takes its leisurely course. One enduring image is Thana and Popeye walking peacefully down the road when they are stopped by a police. First the cops demand to see Thana’s elephant license and travel permit; then Thana is cited for “violating urban tidiness.”
The police want to take Popeye to an animal protection facility, but the local one is full. Thana says he will take Popeye to one in Loie, and off they go. Thana and Popeye meet various people on the road, including Jenny (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender female prostitute in a roadside bar, and lonely drifter Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), who lives in an abandoned gas station and longs to be reunited with his brother “in heaven.”
Dee’s loneliness plays into Thana’s rejection; this unusual meditation on friendship and loneliness shows both to be victims of what Tan calls the “quiet brutality of time.”
Warakulnukroh, a Thai rock musician/record producer, has the proper air of resignation, dejection and loneliness for Thana. But this film isn’t about people. The real star here is Popeye, “played” by the freckled Bong, with a presence not only benign, but actually engaging, even emanating an air of kindness and grace.
Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj is careful to show Popeye in as native a habitat as one can get when walking on blacktop, allowing excursions into the Thai countryside.
Director Kirsten Tan (based in New York but raised in Singapore) makes her feature film debut with Pop Aye, which won a special jury award for screenwriting in the world cinema division at Sundance this year. Her familiarity with the culture and pace of life in Thailand are evident, as is her eye for the unusual and unexpected humor. All are welcome.
Perhaps the real question under consideration is this: Where is home?