(Cover photo: screenshot from official trailer)
The opportunity to watch Kirsten Tan’s award-winning film in a local cinema was too good to pass up. Few people have time for the movies these days, especially if it entails actually stepping out of the house.
But, when an elephant is pretty much the star of the show, how could you not?
“Pop Aye” is about a man who is reconnected with an elephant that he thinks is from his childhood and the two go on an improbable road trip in search of the almighty 'home'.
The journey proves as fraught with obstacles as the very idea of home, particularly for the protagonist, who grapples with loss on multiple fronts. He’s an aging architect who has been sidelined by the younger upstarts in the company because they think they are the shit. His marriage seems strained after years of sameness and ever decreasing conversations. And when he finally reaches his childhood village, he finds, to his frustration, that the thatched roofs and wooden steps have been replaced by low-rise concrete buildings and lifts. Certainly no place for an elephant there.
If one is past one’s hey day, the general sentiment would most likely be as flat as the film's cinematic landscape, broken only by moments of high emotion and absurdity, like the figures of Popeye the elephant and his pilgrim mahout lumbering in the searing heat of central Thailand.
The key characters of the film – the architect, Popeye, Dee the vagrant, the transvestite who lifts the keys to Popeye’s shackles – are typical of people on the fringes of society; those who just about straddle the divide between relevant and irrelevant.
The city, too, struggles with relevance. A brand-spanking-new integrated complex – as is the trend these days – rising like a giant phallus elbowing out the very 1980s Gardenia Square, designed by the architect.
“Pop Aye” moves at the deliberate and unrushed pace of an elephant, which allows you to soak in the realness of the characters and their pathos, the unmerited kindness of strangers and an ending that encourages you to imagine. A scene that had us laughing in joy, empathy and appreciation was the one where Popeye offers the architect a literal leg up. The ensuing 30 seconds with the camera trained on the architect inelegantly clambering onto Popeye’s back are simultaneously beautiful and ridiculously funny.
We’re so glad that Kirsten Tan made this film. There is nothing Singaporean about it and everything praiseworthy. Our hat-tip to Bong who plays Popeye. What an exquisite actor!