POP AYE. Thailand, 2017. Directed by Kirsten Tan. 106 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scene and coarse language).
A film from Thailand. A film about an elephant. And the name of the elephant’s Pop Aye.
This is a very quirky film – although, audiences are not used to see quirkiness from Thailand. It will have a local appeal and, apparently, international audiences have responded very well to the star, the elephant.
We are introduced to a middle-aged man leading an elephant along the road in country Thailand. He needs a rest, hails down a truck with the audience watching how an elephant, lumbering but elegant, steps onto the back of the truck. But soon, the man clashes with the truck driver and is left on the side of the road again. Which means that the audience is wondering what this is all about.
Throughout the film there are a number of flashbacks so we are able to build up the story of the man and his past and his encounters with the elephant. In fact, he first met the elephant as a child, when its mother was shot, and his uncle took the elephant in (while the kids were watching cartoons of Popeye on the television). Later, the elephant was part of a circus.
The man is having something of a midlife crisis, seen on television being interviewed about demolishing of buildings in Bangkok, the building of new high-rise buildings, the achievement of the man in the past – but, the younger generation is coming up, not telling the man that a board meeting was in the morning when he thought it was the afternoon. And, there is tension between himself and his wife.
At this stage, he happens to see the elephant in the street and is moved. He is actually moved to buy the elephant with the quest to take him back to his uncle in the countryside.
Which means that this is what might be called “an elephant road movie.” There are various people to meet along the way. There is a sympathetic beggar and the man takes compassion on him. There is a bar where he is taken by the police who accuse him of having forged papers for the elephant. There is a transgender prostitute, a female prostitute. Then the beggar is found dead on the road and the man decides to take his body to a Buddhist temple (where the monk is interested in the fee and has a Visa card ready as well as a camera to take pictures of the elephant). There is the dead beggar’s love from long ago, she and the man scattering the ashes in a ritual by a tree. Finally, Pop Aye getting back home.
While these are the high points of the story, what matters is seeing the them, appreciating their quirkiness, wondering what will happen to the man and his wife as well as to the elephant.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.