Monday, July 3, 2017

POP AYE: Kristen Tan's original, delightful road-trip-cum-elephant opens in NYC and L.A.

If you have any interest in discovering what a male mid-life crisis looks like, Thai-style, or any intertest in elephants as traveling companions, or really just an interest in unusual, surprising, enriching new movies, then I would heartily recommend POP AYE -- which turns out to be all these things and more. Its writer/director, Krisiten Tan (whose first full-length film this is), has fashioned a parable about coming to terms with one's past, as well as with aging, guilt, life, work and love that takes the form of a road trip by a late-middle-aged man, accompanied by the elephant he knew and cared for as a child. Yes, this is a tale, the likes of which you will probably not have seen previously.

Ms Tan, shown at right, does a lovely job of plunging us into the midst of things via the immediate life of her hero, a fellow named Thana (played by Thaneth Warakulnukroh, shown above and below, with an elephant named Bong, who essays the title role here) and then slowly lets us learn the specifics of his life, his work and his desires so that, by the finale -- as rich and unexpected as much of it is -- everything we now know about him makes sense on several levels: realistic, symbolic, psychological. This is quite an accomplishment for any film, let alone a fledgling effort such as Pop Aye.

Among the things that we learn about Thana is that he is being phased out of his role as one of the top dogs at his architectural firm, as well as by his wife, who seems to want little to do with him, particularly in the sex department. One evening, as he drives around Bangkok feeling depressed, he sees an elephant that reminds him of -- and might in fact be -- the one he took care of as a child, and with whom he grew to young adulthood. (This sort of "elephant" thing can happen more often in Thailand than, say, here in the USA.). Thana stops the car, goes back for a look, and sure enough....

So begins a bizarre but surprisingly believable road trip in which Thana and Pop Aye wend their way toward the village where they spent their younger days. Along the way they get a lift from a truck driver, meet a poor but oddly contented man who pines a bit for his lost wife, become involved with some local police who try to escort the pair to an animal refuge, drink and sing Karaoke with a transgender lady of the night (below), and finally bond with some friends-of-new-friends and a relative who provide both surprising emotion and an oddball kick to this strange tale.

As writer and director, Ms Tan negotiates her storytelling with great visual beauty, humor, irony, unexpected yet heartfelt emotion, and finally the kind of surprise that, in retrospect, makes perfect sense. (The movie's funniest line sprouts from the mouth of a Buddhist monk regarding payment for cremation, while its most refreshing and lively visual comes as Thana attempts to climb atop his traveling companion.)

The journey turns out, of course, to be one of self-discovery, but this is neither telegraphed nor hammered home too strongly. It is also a film about learning what is and is not important in life. In its final section the film grows ever more mysterious and simultaneously all the more rich and resonant, as past and present merge, guilt is revealed and growth -- not a lot but enough -- is achieved. For a first film, Pop Aye is remarkably sophisticated.

From Kino Lorber, the movie opened this past week in New York City at Film Forum, and will hit Los Angeles, this coming Friday, July 7, at Landmark's NuArt and from there, over the weeks to come in another dozen or more cities. To view all currently scheduled playdates,, with cities and theaters listed, click here and then scroll down and click on PLAYDATES.

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