The bond between a disillusioned architect and a majestic elephant is the focus of this appealing film by writer-director Kirsten Tan.
“You’re just like me – old and fat and homeless,” Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh)) tells Popeye the elephant as they trudge along a dusty road somewhere in Thailand.
Thana, a once-celebrated Bangkok architect, has been thrown out of home by his sharp-tongued wife and sidelined at work by his younger colleagues, who are demolishing his signature building to replace it with a showy glass tower.
Adrift and askew, he is wandering the Bangkok streets when he comes upon a sad-looking elephant decked with gaudy trappings, whom he recognises as Popeye, the childhood companion he had named after his favourite cartoon character.
“You want to buy a banana to feed him?” asks the elephant’s owner.
“No, I want to buy him,” says Thana.
He makes a spontaneous decision to return Popeye to the countryside where they had played as youngsters – no matter that his home village is 500km away.
This debut movie by director Tan has a touch of magic about it as it follows Thana and Popeye through a series of unexpected encounters on the road.
There is Dee, a solitary drifter who believes he is about to die. Thana befriends him, gives him money and hope, and they travel together for a while.
Less welcome are the two officious policemen who arrest him for “violating urban tidiness”, and insist on driving slowly behind him as he plods with Popeye to the point of exhaustion.
They stop at a roadside bar where Thana befriends Jenny, a transgender prostitute, and joins her in an exhuberant karaoke duet.
Once Thana manages to hitch a ride with a driver who conveniently is towing an empty truck — just the right size for a very large elephant.
Director Tan interweaves film of this unconventional road trip with flashbacks of Thana’s humble childhood and images of the idyllic countryside contrasting with the skyward glass and steel of the busy city.
When eventually the travellers reach their destination Thana finds that the village home of his nostalgic dreams has changed beyond recognition.
The film is episodic and at times confusing but always absorbing. As Thana, Warakulnukroh strikes the right note of melancholy, kindness and nostalgia.
It is not surprising that Bomba the elephant gets star billing. His patient and dignified presence makes this an unforgettable movie.
Incidentally, it is titled Pop Aye because this is the way Popeye is pronounced in Thailand.
Pop Aye is part of the Lotterywest Film Festival, currently playing at the Somerville Auditorium until 8 April and at ECU Joondalup Pines from 10 – 15 April.
Watch the trailer…