Watching a man share a pitcher of beer with his best elephant friend will warm even the coldest of hearts.
In opening with a shot of a confused older man stumbling down the side of the highway, Pop Aye begins almost identically to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, except that Pop Aye’s senior citizen is accompanied by an elephant. This simply and beautifully establishes the film’s central conceit, which is buddies on the road, in the grand tradition of films such as Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider and Y Tu Mamá También. It’s also, like Nebraska, a story about finding your purpose in the later years of life.
In flashback, we learn that the older man, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), is a successful Thai architect whose career and marriage have seen better days. While driving down a busy Bangkok street, he spots an elephant performing tricks for a beer company. He thinks he recognizes the elephant, Pop Aye, from his youth and proceeds to buy him and take him home. When he sees Pop Aye’s injuries from years of cruel treatment, Thana tells his elephant, “Fuck everyone else. From now on, it’s just you and me.”
Though they kick off the duo’s adventure, Thana’s words are far from true. Thana and Pop Aye meet a variety of interesting characters along their way, from a spiritual vagrant to two bumbling police officers to a transgender prostitute, and while the characters themselves may veer towards the stereotypical, Thana and Pop Aye’s interactions with them are not. These little meetings are often transformative for the characters they encounter, and it establishes writer-director Kirsten Tan’s apparent thesis, which is that Thana and Pop Aye’s relationship is something spiritual. Little occurrences that aid their journey, such as a truck of melons overturning just as Pop Aye is getting thirsty, further this point as well.
Though this spiritual angle may seem a bit airy, what Tan (who won a special screenwriting prize at Sundance for this film) does particularly well is keep things focused on the central duo of man and elephant. Thana is a consistently interesting character, one who is slowly discovering his inner child as the film progresses. And Pop Aye is charming but rarely humanized. The smartest element of this film is that it allows Pop Aye the elephant to be an elephant. He’s affectionate towards Thana but also wanders off to find tasty treats, veers off course to pursue water in filthy ponds and refuses to listen to commands if he’s tired.
Though the film gets many things right, one aspect that doesn’t quite gel is the relationship between Thana and his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul). Pop Aye wants us to believe that Thana and Bo are each suffering because of their separation from one another, but none of their interactions are anything but antagonistic. This wouldn’t be so egregious if the film’s abrupt end didn’t hinge so heavily on their marriage.
Pop Aye’s languid pacing is also an issue. Such a slow pace could work, perhaps, if the idea was for the audience to fall into a meditative state as Thana and Pop Aye traverse Thailand’s beautiful countryside. However, the slow pace has more to do with long gaps between character’s answering each another. And while their journey is beautiful in an agrarian sort of way, the landscape the characters travel through is not calming. Rather, like Thailand itself, it is beautiful and chaotic, filled with characters on motorbikes, large herds of loud, dirty cows and groups of small children.
While it isn’t perfect, Pop Aye is a beautiful, thoughtful road movie. It’s a journey of faith and friendship, but it also embraces a quirky but wonderfully simple story about a man and his elephant. It is a film about rediscovering childhood, and it’s filled with an abundance of unique, satisfying scenes. Watching a man share a pitcher of beer with his best elephant friend will warm even the coldest of hearts.