The Strange Journey of an Elephant

in 10th OFF CAMERA International Festival of Independent Cinema, Krakow

by Pierre-Yves Roger

Pop Aye, a Thai-Singaporean film from first-time director Kirsten Tan, is an original road movie. It tells the story of an architect facing professional and personal problems who decide to escort an elephant living in Bangkok to its native village. Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) was once a famous architect in Bangkok. These days, he feels excluded at work because of his age: he is too old for the young, ambitious generation. Simultaneously, he faces problems with his wife: their relationship worsens through the routine of their lives. Therefore when Thana comes across Pop Aye, an elephant resembling one who was his childhood companion, he decides to buy it and return it to its native village. It’s not easy travelling with such a big animal, but throughout their journey, Thana and Pop Aye meet a range of colorful, unusual characters, including a strange vagabond and a drag queen who wants to become a singer.

The film was shot in Bangkok and around the Loei province in north-east Thailand, with a budget of 665,000 euros. As Tan explains, “there were many elements that made this shoot a particular challenge. We worked with animals, a huge one at that. We filmed during one of Thailand’s hottest summers in fifty years. Being a road movie, we had a ton of locations to cover. But amidst all of that, I think a huge challenge for me was to hold on to my directorial vision. The world of the film I had envisioned — narratively, aesthetically, emotionally – was part-absurd, part-realist: a tightrope balance. It required mental rigor to stay true to that amidst all the chaos of shooting this logistically demanding film.”

It was not easy to shoot with an elephant, even given a kind, easygoing animal. “It might seem enchanting on a script level to have an elephant, but when you are reconstructing doors to houses so an elephant can exit and enter, when you are planning the extra hours it will take to get an elephant up a mountain at four in the morning, all I can say is that it gets very difficult to pull off,” adds Tan, a Singaporean who used to live in Thailand. “Thailand, much like the rest of Southeast Asia, is facing rapid economic change in the name of progress and relentless development. I wanted to talk about someone who is caught in this transitory existence where nothing feels permanent.”

The casting is very good, which gives the film a lot of credibility. Penpak Srikul, playing the role of Bo, is the only well-known performer in the cast. No-one else is a professional actor – and that includes Warakulnukroh, who was a rock star in the 80s.

It took three years for Tan to make this exotic, often funny film, based on a very good script. In an entertaining fashion, she depicts problems which might concern anyone: a conjugal crisis, the gap between generations, and the contrast between life in the country and the big city.

Having already scored prizes at Sundance and Rotterdam, Pop Aye won a new trophy in May: the FIPRESCI jury awarded its prize to this original film.

Edited by Lesley Chow