Although I am a fan of all film genres, I have an affinity for the human-fantasy friendship trope. Whether it’s between a human and a horse (War Horse), a human and a robot (The Iron Giant), a human and a mutant super-pig (Okja) or a human and a Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), a strong bond is a strong bond, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are.
In the case of Kirsten Tan‘s directorial debut, Pop Aye, it’s between a human and a elephant. Unlike Tony Jaa‘s action epic The Protector where the man kills billions of people to get his elephant back from mustache-twirling bad guys, the main lead in Pop Aye reunites with his eponymous childhood pet and tries to take him back to his village. Will the film be as touching as the prior examples or will the film need to be put down?
Thaneth Warakulnukroh makes his acting debut as Thana, a middle-aged architect, who is bored at work as well as at home with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul). One day, as he wanders the Bangkok city, he spots an elephant which turns out to be his childhood pet, Pop Aye.
Faster than you can say “Don Quixote”, he buys Pop Aye and then decides to take the elephant back to the village where they grew up together and into his uncle Peak’s (Narong Pongpab) care. Thus, they embark on a road trip through the rural Thailand to their hometown of Loei Province, Isan.
Okay, maybe the last statement in the introductory paragraph was a bit mean-spirited but there are many examples out there that are downright terrible like Marley and Me (which is as incorrect as the grammatical error of a title) and the recent film A Dog’s Purpose (why kill off one dog when you can kill off five?). Those films are inferior examples because of the filmmakers insistence in getting every single tear out of the audience that it borders on grievous bodily harm.
Thankfully, Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye is on another level in comparison, as Tan provides an amiable, bittersweet and surprisingly surreal piece of work. The subtle and contemplative tone and the script by Tan makes the film more than the sum of its parts.
One of the things the film gets right is the titular character itself, Pop Aye. Named after the cartoon but renamed for copyright purposes, and played by Bong and two other elephants, Pop Aye is as contemplative as he is charming. His reactions towards the many bizarre characters in the road trip are funny. But he really stand out when you see his final shot of the film, as he stares into the horizon.
In fact, the humour in the film is quite sharp. Whether its showing a sex toy to prove a point, seeing the interactions between Thana and Bo or the great spaghetti western-like score by Matthew James Kelly, the film is not without its levity. But overall, the film is basically a low-key character study for Thana.
Thaneth Warakulnukroh gives a great performance as the lead, as he lends the right amount of gravitas, melancholy and restrained jubilation. Penpak Sirikul (last seen in The Hangover Part II) lends a surprising amount of humanity to the role of Bo, who could have easily be seen as a materialistic person.
Other surprises come from the supporting cast, such as Yukontorn Sukkijja as Jenny, a transgender woman whom Thana meets in a nightclub. Her enigmatic presence, her brief exchanges of dialogue and her sharp wit understandably makes her a stand-out to Thana as well as the audience.
But the biggest surprise is Chaiwat Khumdee as Dee, a vagrant who is content with where he has ended up life. His optimism and modesty and Khumdee’s performance make Dee the best character in the film. His character also offers an opposing view in comparison to Thana, as both have cherished memories that may not be as idealised as they think.
Speaking of what is expected, there are a few surprising curveballs in the narrative that lend a lot of depth to the film, as the journey is more than just revisiting the past, but is more along the lines of sheer remorse.
The film does drag a little bit in terms of its pacing and the destination the film gets to is a bit slight compared to the journey preceding it, but overall, Pop Aye is a film that stands out from the pack of human-fantasy genre trope and is worth looking out for.
Film Review: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Pop Aye will be playing at the Mercury Cinema from tonight (September 20th) as part of Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival. For more details head HERE. Don’t miss the special Q&A with Director Kirsten Tan on Friday morning.