Director: Kirsten Tan
Cast: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 6/28/17 (limited); 8/4/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 3, 2017
"You don't look like the kind of man who'd be traveling with an elephant," the truck driver tells the man, who's traveling with an elephant. This suggests, quite amusingly, that there are certain men who are the type to look like they'd be traveling with an elephant, and as we learn more about Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), the protagonist of Pop Aye, he just might be that type—whatever it is.
Thana is a man who has spent his entire life believing in certain things: that a fulfilling career is its own reward, that a good marriage can withstand anything, and that there's nothing closer to immortality than a monument to one's work. He's at a point in his life, though, when he easily can be—and is being—replaced. A new generation at an architectural firm, where he has worked for most of his life, wants its chance to leave a mark. Thana isn't told when important meetings have changed, and he's bumped off the design team for a project, because they want younger minds to come up with a new building.
The building will be replacing a city square in Bangkok. It's one that Thana designed many, many years ago as a place where families and friends could get together, and while it has served the city well, it's time for a new structure. The old one, which he also designed as a place where he could bring his wife on the weekends, will be demolished soon. As for his marriage, well, Thana finds that he has been replaced in that arena, too, when he finds that his wife has been hiding a special toy in the closet.
What's a man in Thana's situation to do? The answer is nothing, really, except to accept the changes, to work on fixing what can be fixed, and to continue living under new circumstances.
That's difficult, though. Instead, Thana buys an elephant.
It's not just any elephant. It's one that Thana knew as a child, when he lived on a farm in the country. This seems like an unlikely coincidence, but he is certain it's the same elephant, because, when Thana whistles the theme to the old Popeye the Sailor cartoons, the elephant mimics the whistle that ends the song by making a toot from its trunk.
This is the somewhat absurd premise to writer/director Kirsten Tan's debut feature, a bittersweet story about the inescapable lure of the past, as well as that lure's benefits and hazards. Thana is clearly drawn to the elephant, because it reminds him of a simpler time. That's what pretty much the desire of every character whom Thana meets here. They might not know it or have thought about the past for a long time, but there is something akin to Thana's want to return to his hometown—to that simpler way of life—within these other characters.
As one might expect, his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) isn't too pleased with the idea of having an elephant at home, so upon threat of his wife leaving, Thana packs up his things, puts them in a large satchel on the elephant's back, and walks away from his house without a word. His plan is walk from the capital city to Loei—over 300 miles across Thailand—to meet with his uncle (played by Narong Pongpab), who's Thana's last surviving relative. Thana doesn't have any more to the plan, because he seems to think that, like the sudden appearance of the elephant, the return will provide some magical answer to his dilemma.
That dilemma and similar ones persist throughout Thana's various encounters with people. A truck driver, who helps Thana and the elephant for a bit with his empty trailer, wants the status of living in Bangkok, even though he has to drive away from the city for long stretches of time in order to live there. There are plenty of regrets and lots of longing for a simpler time for Jenni (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender woman who works as a prostitute out of a rural bar, where a pair of cops have brought Thana to rest for the night.
A homeless man named Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee) has found something of a simple life, sleeping in abandoned gas station, which provides a roof over his head, and hunting for food. The cost, though, is that he is simply waiting to die, because this lifestyle was a secondary option. His only wish is to take the woman he loves on a scooter ride, like they did when they were younger. Thana meets that woman later on his journey, and the results are both disheartening—when it comes to how she thinks of Dee now and hasn't thought of him for a long time—and lovely—how she responds to learning of Dee's continued affection for her.
Tan's film has abundant sympathy for its characters (save for those two cops, who just come across as a diverting obstacle for the story's otherwise loose narrative). It recognizes that trying to return to the past—to a simpler way of life—is a fool's errand (A brief flashback to Thana's childhood suggests that it might not have been as ideal as he remembers it, and the climax takes a literal interpretation of the old maxim that you can't go home again). Pop Aye, though, also acknowledges and embraces the idea that, to one degree or another, we're all fools in this regard.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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