Bucking the usual cliché of buying a sports car during a midlife crisis, frustrated architect Thana buys an elephant he recognises from his childhood. Without taking the time to consider the implications he finds himself thrown out of the house by his wife. Suddenly he decides to return the elephant, named Popeye, to his home village on foot.
On paper, this debut feature by Director Kirsten Tan sounds like a straight comedy and while there is a lot of humour found here, Pop Aye is mostly a slow burning and ultimately enigmatic film about a man trying to reconnect with his past.
Initially told in a fragmented and non-linear way, Pop Aye gradually falls into a more conventional rhythm as it progresses. Thana, finding himself pushed to the margins at his architectural firm and clearly unwanted at home, longs to return to the more innocent days of his childhood and sees Popeye as his means to do so. He travels with the elephant mostly on foot across the Thailand countryside running into different characters that aid or hinder him in various ways.
Thaneth Warakulnukroh gives a nicely understated performance as Thana, a man constantly close to unravelling completely but for the most part just managing to hold himself in check.
One of Pop Aye’s strongest elements is its use of the elephant itself. Popeye is an unmistakeable presence in the film but he is never used cheaply. The bond between himself and Thana is obvious but never overstated. There is an extended scene where the ungainly Thana struggles to climb onto Popeye’s back that is both sad and hilarious at the same time and goes some way to summing up Thana’s journey overall.
It’s a competently made film and communicates most of its ideas through its visuals rather than dialogue, however it can be very slow going with some of the encounters Thana having on the road working better than others. In the end I enjoyed the movie but I feel like it took a long time for me to reach that point.
There’s repetitiveness to the film that can be slightly frustrating, particularly as Thana suffers from one setback after another, but in that it mirrors its protagonist’s journey. The film is strongest in its final third when it begins to connect its different parts together in an easy-going manner, never trying too hard to over-explain its symbolism. Overall this is an entertaining road movie, but a little on the slow side.
Review by Matt Russell
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