Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a successful but dispirited middle-aged Bangkok architect, grown distant from Bo (Penpak Sirikul), his glamorous wife, and tired of working for a young slickster with dubious taste, is in need of redemption, or at least a major break from his routine. Writer/director Kirsten Tan’s funny and melancholy debut feature, “Pop Aye,” pairs Thana with Popeye (Bong), an elephant working as a street performer, and sends them on an unexpected road trip (which repeatedly zigs when it seems it will zag) from the capital to the architect’s childhood home in the countryside.
Recognizing Popeye as the elephant rescued decades earlier by his Uncle Peak (Narong Pongpab) after hunters shot the animal’s mother, and raised in their village, Thana is distressed by his old companion’s rough condition. He buys him from his handler and soon begins walking home, to return Popeye to Uncle Peak and Loei, the idyllic village stored in his memory.
Both Tan and her duo take their time on the road to Loei. Thana, with his rounded glasses, grey hair and goatee and lovely, lumbering Popeye, receive the kindness of strangers, and are on the giving end as well. None of fascinating characters encountered play as a device or is reduced to the sum of quirks.
But you can’t go home again and Thana recognizes that there was real value in the journey, if not in the disappointing destination. He returns to Bangkok, and with Bo, surreptitiously visits Gardenia Square, an early project, an upscale mall, now shuttered and slated for demo. She tells Thana that she was at the mall when the earthquake hit but unlike the other patrons, felt no need to flee (he comments on the appropriateness for Bo of “death by shopping”), as she adds that she felt safe at Gardenia because he had built it.
“Pop Aye” will open on Wednesday, June 28 at Film Forum for a two-week run. There will be a Q&A with Kirsten Tan at the 7:00 pm show on both opening day and Friday, June 30.