Pop Aye: A buddy picture worth trumpeting
22 Jul 2017 - 14:59
By Christopher Kompanek / The Washington Post
Filmmaker Kirsten Tan riffs on the tropes of both the buddy film and the road trip movie in her absurd yet subtly observed feature debut "Pop Aye." The writer and director sets a tragicomic tone early on, when the middle-aged architect Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) wanders out of his Bangkok office and buys an elephant he's convinced is his long-lost childhood pet, Popeye. (According to the director, the film's title refers to the way Thais pronounce the name of the old cartoon, which Thana watched while growing up in rural Thailand).
This outlandish act of regression occurs after Thana learns that one of his first architectural projects - a now-outmoded, family-friendly shopping mall - will be demolished to make way for a sleek luxury tower called Eternity. As an expression of midlife angst, a sports car would fit more comfortably in his driveway - not to mention be less likely to barge into the house in the middle of the night and terrify his wife (Penpak Sirikul). But Thana is itching to upend his too-comfortable existence.
As he sets off on foot with Popeye, played by an elephant named Bong, for a visit to the home of his uncle (Narong Pongpag), Thana's journey is less about where he's going than what he's leaving behind. As a dramatic device, the elephant provides the filmmaker with plenty of organic physical comedy. There aren't many places in modern society where an elephant fits comfortably, but the same could be said of Thana, whose firm is now being run by a man half his age.
Thankfully, we're spared a long monologue spelling this out.
That's what makes "Pop Aye" the thinking person's feel-good film of the summer: Much is communicated nonverbally (or, at most, with sparse dialogue). The palpable bromance - if that's even the right word for this interspecies relationship - is visible in each trunk nuzzle. Thana never smiles as widely as he does when peering into Popeye's large, dark eyes.
On their trek, they encounter a hopeless drifter, Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), and a weathered transgender sex worker, Jenny (Yukontorn Sukkijja), each of whom gives Thana some perspective on his own predicament. Thana's attempts to connect are only partly successful. If he can get Dee to reunite with his estranged wife, he believes, maybe he can find a path back home for himself. As Thana, Warakulnukroh radiates a sense of unadorned humanity, coupling a sense of being lost with the desire to be of service.
There's a great twist when Thana arrives at his uncle's house. Although it fits with the film's overall tone, the film's final moments tip the scale of sentimentality toward the saccharine, giving "Pop Aye" a resolution that's too tidy for the wildly expansive journey that came before.
Three stars. Unrated. Contains some mature thematic material. In Thai with English subtitles. 102 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.