Friday, January 27, 2017

Sundance ’17: Pop Aye

Thana is definitely experiencing a mid-life crisis, but he buys an elephant instead of a sports car. It’s a guilt thing rather than a Thai thing per se. Parking him in Bangkok will be a challenge, so the architect and his pachyderm light out on a road trip in Singaporean Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

These are not happy days for Thana. His marriage to the haughty Bo is on the rocks and his most famous commission is about to fall under the wrecking ball. However, he comes alive when he spies a shabby huckster mistreating a former circus elephant. In fact, Thana is convinced this is his provincial family’s former elephant, Pop Aye (think “the sailor man,” but without any potential copyright infringement). To do right by the beast he apparently once wronged, Thana commences a road trip to his Uncle Peak’s country home. Along the way, they encounter scheming exploiters, Zenned out tricksters, and transgendered performers. This is indeed Thailand.

Right, so basically Pop Aye is like The Protector films starring Tony Jaa, but without the martial arts. It also left out most of the cutesy quirk you might expect in an elephant road movie. Frankly, the tone of the film really is closer to the Protector franchise than the embarrassingly Bill Murray vehicle, Larger than Life. Many of the backwater byways Thana and Pop Aye travel are undeniably dark and gritty. Tan’s visuals, focusing on a man and his elephant even get a little trippy at times, at least for non-Thais.

Sad-eyed former musician Thaneth Warakulnukroh is scrupulously reserved but deeply compelling as the architect in crisis. Penpak Sirikul also brings unusual dimension to the henpecking Bo. However, Bong inevitably steals the show as Pop Aye, just like W.C. Fields would have predicted.

Pop Aye is a quiet film, but you would not describe it as happy-go-lucky. To the contrary, Tan quite assuredly maintains a distinctive note of sadness all the way through. She also briefly evokes 1980s nostalgia with a video tribute to Thana’s soon to be demolished shopping center. Altogether, it is a deceptive simple film of considerable maturity. Recommended for discerning viewers, Pop Aye screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.