An elephant and a man walk into a film. No, it’s not the start of a joke but the premise of an offbeat charmer called “Pop Aye,” a film that’s emotional and amusing by turn and marks the feature debut of writer-director Kirsten Tan.
Tan, whose screenplay won an award at Sundance, is a Singapore-born filmmaker, but having lived in Bangkok and picked up a working knowledge of the language, she’s set her film in today’s Thailand and peopled it with quirky individuals with distinctive personalities.
However, getting top billing in the credits (no kidding) is the elephant Popeye, played by a big animal named Bong. This beast is not just window dressing, his unpredictable actions help drive the story as much as any of the human actors.
In fact, you could say that the way this elephant walks through the film, deliberate but purposeful, with a clear goal in mind, somehow sets the tone for the unhurried but focused way “Pop Aye” unfolds.
When we first meet Popeye and his owner, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), walking down a highway in the middle of nowhere, we’ve got nothing but questions. Who is this man? Where is he going? And why is he going there with an elephant for a companion?
Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Thana is in fact a prominent Bangkok architect, facing a midlife crisis of sorts and choosing an unexpected way out of it.
Thana is being marginalized by his new boss and the building that was his first major project, a Bangkok landmark called Gardena Square, is slated for demolition. Though he tells journalists “the old has to make way for the new,” the architect is more upset than he lets on.
Adding to Thana’s sense of dislocation is his deteriorating relationship with his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), who would rather shop than engage with her husband.
Nothing might have come of any of this if Thana hadn’t felt a shock of recognition when he catches a glimpse of a street elephant in his neighborhood.
Could this be the elephant his family owned during his rural village childhood, the animal he named “Popeye” after the celebrated cartoon character and whose catchy theme song he taught the beast to recognize?
Thana buys the elephant on the spot and brings it home, but Bo is less than pleased, and the fed-up husband decides on the spur of the moment to walk out of his normal life and return Popeye to the village he has not been to in years. “Screw everyone else,” he whispers to Popeye. “From now on it’s just you and me.”
Of course, as in any picaresque film, that’s not completely the case, as the out-of-the-ordinary people Thana meets on his journey, including a long-haired free spirit and a transgender sex worker who is passionate about karaoke, are part of “Pop Aye’s” appeal.
There’s even a Buddhist monk who accepts Visa cards for services rendered, and a pair of zealous police officers who want to arrest Thana and his elephant for “violating urban tidiness.” Really.
But “Popeye” is not the film’s titular character for nothing (the director says that the actual title is a riff on the way Thais pronounce the name) and watching the elephant work the room, so speak, interacting magisterially with all and sundry, is always a treat.
Helping move things along in an engaging manner is a lively score written by Michael James Kelly and featuring wailing surf guitar licks a la Link Wray that are played by Kelly himself on vintage electric instruments he acquired for the purpose.
Naturally, nothing about this journey ends up quite the way anyone imagined it would, but this trip is worth your time. “Pop Aye” may not be in a rush, but it is definitely going somewhere.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles