STOP10 Apr 2017: 'Pop Aye' by Kirsten Tan

Premiering as the opening night film at Sundance, Singapore’s first ever entry into the competition, Pop Aye is a humanistic, charming, off beat road movie full of odd encounters with eclectic characters. It finally comes home to Singaporea screens in Golden Village cinemas on the 13th of April.

With the interesting hook involving transporting an elephant from Bangkok to the countryside, the movie should not be a hard sell, especially when the titular character is one of its main stars and transcends quickly into a symbol of a past that plagues our protagonist, Thana. (Thaneth Warakulnukroh)

Thana is introduced to us in his darkest days, as a man who has lost his purpose in life, where everything he achieved is now being replaced. His younger boss is taking over his architectural projects as well as tearing down his main achievement, a shopping complex he had designed years ago. It is to be replaced by a larger and extremely phallic metallic building. To add salt into the wounds, the superstructure is named Eternity. At home too he feels replaced, finding his exasperated wife’s hidden vibrator and later pushes away his awkward and cringe worthy sexual advances.

Wandering through Bangkok, a place he had yearned for in his younger days, he spots an old elephant he believes to be Pop Aye, a childhood companion back in his youth on the family farm. His reconnection to this kindred spirit – an out-of-place and forsaken animal – changes his life as Thana decides to bring Pop Aye all the way back to his village in Loei, where he believes it belongs. Thus sparks one of the most endearing and affecting adventures directed by a Singaporean filmmaker.

We are then thrust full on into the journey of Pop Aye, which takes a riskier but definitely more engaging route with its non-linear editing. Tan has some fun with the formula of a traditional voyage, passing back and forth loosely in time and ends with a film that is circumambulatory and karmic in many respects. The films’ insistent theme of inescapable progression of time becomes much stronger for this choice. Furthermore, injected with some black humor and lined with a boisterous score by Matthew James Kelly and sound design by Ting Li Lim, the expedition feels vast, well paced and never a drag.

Personally however, the most interesting and unique moments, come from the simplest scenes loaded with unexpected spells of surrealism that lifts the film with added vitality and depth. They are forceful and leave a lasting impression.

None of this really particularly matters if we were not invested in the characters of course, but Thana is instantly easy to sympathize with from the very beginning. His despair is practically palpable and on his protracted journey, he brings a sense of vulnerability as he repeatedly jumps out from the frying pan and into the fire.

As much trouble he gets himself mixed up in however, the film rarely turns into something overtly comical nor grim and is outstandingly good natured and warm. While he runs into the panoply of interesting characters that he meets, Thana in a saint-like manner, manages to leave something positive unto each and everyone of them in their own special way.  So often, a failing of such road movies is when the protagonists feel too inactive, allowing events on their journey to simply happen to them, yet Thana equally reciprocates to the strangers he meets.

They unsurprisingly are much like Thana himself - an outsider and misfit like most of Tan’s characters. They too are largely past their prime and replaced in some way. Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), a haggard hippie living in a disused gas station, ready and waiting to die to be reunited with his brother in heaven is an early stranger he meets who becomes deeply changed and returns later in the film. Another character is Jenni (Yukontorn Sukkijja) an ageing transgender singer, working at a ramshackle roadside bar, who helps him on his way whilst also bringing some playful sexual tension.

There is also not a real antagonist here and no true opposing set of characters. Thana’s wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul) is disapproving of his actions, but most of us could not possibly blame a woman for freaking out when she finds that her husband had bought an elephant off the street and into their home. Nor are the two police officers that he runs into bad people. They dealt more in low-grade unpleasantness than actual villainy.

Much of this comes from the complexities given to each character than a failure of the screenwriting, shifting focus much more on Thana’s internal struggle. The scenes allow things to unfold, sometimes languidly and in unexpected ways but with a human focus. Tan here proves her strength as an expert chronicler of quiet human dissatisfaction and frustration. There are no melodramatic performances and even after surmounting their various obstacles to reach their final destination, there is no simple and conventional resolution that one would expect, like the realisation that the modest life in the countryside had always been better than the metropolis they had attempted escaping.

Instead the inevitable and relentless march of modern development still touches Thana’s old home and everything becomes replaceable with little remorse or sentiment. It is not a cathartic and simple answer but proves a cautionary message, as Thana soon realizes coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

The film has and leaves the viewer with warmth and in spite of the titular elephant in the room, a genuine love for people. There is a great captivation to be found in the lives of these characters, even with the most minor of them. Overall Pop Aye is generously insightful and serves to shed some light on inexorableness of time upon society and existence.

Check out the trailer for Pop Aye here: 

Pop Aye opens on 13 April in Golden Village cinemas.

Written by Rifyal Giffari

For the full list of April 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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