Director Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye is a quiet and gentle-paced road movie that follows a middle-aged Thai architect as he goes through a mid-life crisis. It deals with some big themes, shows us a view of contemporary Thailand through a series of character vignettes, and gives us a few laughs along the way.
Middle-aged architect Thana feels unappreciated at work and at home. He doesn’t fit in with the plans of the new, younger, management of the architectural firm he works at – he is sidelined out of meetings with clients, and his signature project from the early days of his career is to be replaced with a more contemporary building. At home a chance discovery makes him realise that he is no longer needed or wanted there either. Feeling sorry for himself and a little adrift, he spots, by chance, his childhood elephant friend, Pop Aye, and decides to buy it and return it to his uncle who still lives in their childhood village. Thus finding renewed purpose, the movie follows Thana on a slow, elephant-paced, trek through the Thai countryside back to his village.
Thana’s pathway out of his middle-aged crisis is to try to tie up some loose ends with his family, to put to bed what may have been some guilt when he sold the elephant many years before to fund his own trip to Bangkok whilst leaving the rest of the family in the village. After not visiting the family for many years, there is only one uncle left alive. Surely if he returns the elephant and pays a visit he will feel appreciated again. Would it be stretching things too far to see the elephant as a metaphor for the baggage we collect and which weighs us down. Thana’s journey to return the elephant could be a metaphor for trying to rid himself of his baggage?
The movie further explores the theme of middle-aged crisis through two of the other characters Thana meets along the way. One character has chosen to drop out completely, and simply sits and watches the traffic go by while he waits to join his brother in heaven – an interesting parallel with a colleague that said goodbye to the corporate world to spend his days trainspotting. The other character is a transvestite singer and prostitute in a bar. Having seen better days, this character is jealous of ‘her’ younger competition, but refusing to simply give up, she is defiant and proud.
We are also asked to consider the roles of money, kindness and trust in shaping our relationships with each other. Through a series of encounters with strangers we see a Buddhist monk that helpfully offers to take VISA in payment for services, a villager that offers to lend his truck to Thana to transport the wounded elephant (whilst holding his daughter responsible should anything go wrong), misplaced trust when Thana takes a lift in a truck that is seemingly going to deliver him and the elephant to a gang, and kindness when Thana buys a motorbike for the drop out to help him close his own circle.
Our rating: 7/10 – an interesting, sometimes funny, though rather slow-paced movie.