One might be tempted to expect Kerstin Tan’s delightful and affecting Pop Aye to be a comic take on the classic Hollywood buddy picture: An aging architect, Thana, hooks up with an old pal, Popeye, at a moment of deep existential crisis for both of them. They hit the road, reminiscing about old times and enjoying wacky adventures along the way. But to qualify as a real buddy pic, Pop Aye would require a lot more elephant.
Rather, the road trip back to rural Loei, over 300 miles north of Bangkok, taken mostly on foot, is really an exploration of Thana’s past, Popeye, an elephant he grew up with as a boy, serving as a figure somewhere between a buddy (never humanized, always appreciated for his animalness) and a symbol. Popeye is the past, in a sense, which Thana pledges to treasure now, the animal epitomizing memory, a remnant of what appears in flashback to have been a relatively idyllic youth spent in a rustic compound carved out of the surrounding jungle and populated by Thana’s extended family.
It’s precisely this kind of close, communal life Thana’s devoted himself, since the early days of his career, to recreating for strangers in the city—here, always Bangkok—where his first major project was a tower of shops and residences called Gardenia Square. Now, thirty years later, that building is set for demolition, and though Thana has earned a comfortable life, his relationships with his wife and his boss, his first mentor’s son, have both grown cold. Whatever happiness Thana once enjoyed seems, somewhat inexplicably, to have faded. Is it just old age? Or has something about the city, its promise of success, finally wrung all joy out of him, after all? One night, a chance rediscovery of his long lost Popeye, dressed up and shilling for photos on the street these days, electrifies Thana, and sets him on his simple, if madcap quest, to return home, ostensibly to return the elephant to his Uncle Peak, who still lives on the family land in Loei.
But even as the man and his elephant plod their way through the countryside, there’s a sense that the city has become harder and harder to leave behind. Layered into every vista (and there are surprisingly few) are elements of industry or contemporary habitation, as if each hill and valley is just moments away from development, a project of despoliation in which Thana himself, his whole career, is deeply implicated.
Still, there’s also a feeling of wildness out there, of danger and desperate opportunism, if not lawlessness, that makes the pudgy, whispy-haired Thana seem even more inadequate and distant from his roots, even more dependent on the variety of vagabonds and edge-dwellers he and Popeye encounter on the road. Interestingly, it’s Thana’s recognition of his inadequacy, his humility, and his capacity as an urban professional to give and to give away, that draws out others’ generosity, displays of which (along with the beauty of seeing an elephant walk) provide the film’s most magical moments.
If Pop Aye can be faulted for a rather slow pace, some occasionally clunky editing, and a certain amount of predictability in its set pieces, there is, nevertheless, a large, authentic, and effervescent heart at the center of the film, whose themes of memory and forgetting are often tinged with the pathos of immanent death. Most significantly, its perspectives on generosity and the passing of life are utterly of their place, in many ways foreign to Western viewers, and all the more valuable to experience.