Written & Directed by: Kirsten Tan
Produced by: Lai Weijie, Deng Li, Zhang Jianbin, Huang Wenhong
Onset Photographer: Lek Kiatsirikajor
Composer: Matthew James Kelly
Starring: Bong (as Popeye), Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab.
Foreign Language: Thai with English subtitles.
Winner Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award
Winner Rotterdam VPRO Big Screen Award
Winner Best International Feature Film Zurich Film Festival
Popeye is the name of an elephant, a street elephant, lost now found by Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an architect reaching middle-age and realising that everything he’s worked for is now broken – like his first building about to be destroyed to make way for a new design, a new building aptly named: Eternity.
Finding Popeye (named after the cartoon ‘sailor man’) on the streets of Bangkok, it feels like a chance, a new beginning; the broken Popeye the only Being in the world to understand what it is to be taken for granted.
Leaving his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), job and city, Thana sets out on a journey, taking Popeye with him on the roads of Thailand to return the elephant to his childhood home, their home.
It’s the circle of life, suddenly finding the world different – changing, always moving forward and brutal in leaving the old and weak behind: like nature. But in nature it’s a slow process. In the city it’s not about watching the day pass, it’s about money – and it passes fast.
The film is a classic tale of a man having a midlife crisis but shown in the unique setting of Thailand with colourful trucks, ladyboys and the relationship a man can have with an elephant.
Writer and director (debut feature) Kirsten Tan is able to show the animals with real personality – the antics of Popeye as he makes a break for it to continue his own journey from a shopping carpark, shopping trolley being dragged behind; to confused dogs barking at a giant immovable adversary; to long-eared cows lost without their cowbell to announce their coming and going.
There’s a bitter-sweet tone to this film, watching Thana project his life-crisis onto his lost childhood pet, because life is bitter and sometimes sweet.
As Tan states: “Tonally, I believe that life is—and has always been—simultaneously tragic and comic. It only depends on the perspective and distance with which one is watching events unfold. In my films, this inadvertent mixing of tragedy and comedy is important, because that is the truth of life.”
Money is an important part of life, but so is that wondering about what happened to past loves, the yearning to return home – the acceptance of others.
Pop Aye is a quiet film to show the cruel and the kind and those on their own path and how each can connect or break apart shown in a timeline that shifts back and forth but always back to Thana and his struggles – the simple things have meaning like the offer of sandals to ease tired feet, the response to hesitation, ‘They’re old not dirty’.
The meeting of the fortune teller able stop time, to ‘feel a bit like a tree.’ And Thana wants to stop the world turning. ‘But even trees have to die.’
Pop Aye’s a film to absorb and ponder – a journey to lift the soul; not a fast-paced entertainment.
And I can relate to reaching a crossroads and the wanting to wander ‘til it all makes sense; to be able to slow down time, just for a little bit.