“Pop Aye” is a buddy pic­ture worth trum­pet­ing

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Christo­pher Kom­panek Pro­vided by the Sun­dance In­sti­tute

★★★5 Un­rated. In Thai with English sub­ti­tles. 102 min­utes.

Film­maker Kirsten Tan riffs on the tropes of both the buddy film and the road trip movie in her ab­surd yet sub­tly ob­served fea­ture de­but “Pop Aye.” The writer and di­rec­tor sets a tragi­comic tone early on, when the mid­dleaged ar­chi­tect Thana (Thaneth Warakul­nukroh) wan­ders out of his Bangkok of­fice and buys an ele­phant he’s con­vinced is his long-lost child­hood pet, Pop­eye. (Ac­cord­ing to the di­rec­tor, the film’s ti­tle refers to the way Thais pro­nounce the name of the old car­toon, which Thana watched while grow­ing up in ru­ral Thai­land).

This out­landish act of re­gres­sion oc­curs af­ter Thana learns that one of his first ar­chi­tec­tural pro­jects — a now-out­moded, fam­ily-friendly shop­ping mall — will be de­mol­ished to make way for a sleek lux­ury tower called Eter­nity. As an ex­pres­sion of midlife angst, a sports car would fit more com­fort­ably in his drive­way – not to men­tion be less likely to barge into the house in the mid­dle of the night and ter­rify his wife (Pen­pak Sirikul). But Thana is itch­ing to up­end his too-com­fort­able ex­is­tence.

As he sets off on foot with Pop­eye, played by an ele­phant named Bong, for a visit to the home of his un­cle (Narong Pong­pag), Thana’s jour­ney is less about where he’s go­ing than what he’s leav­ing be­hind. As a dra­matic de­vice, the ele­phant pro­vides the film­maker with plenty of or­ganic phys­i­cal com­edy. There aren’t many places in mod­ern so­ci­ety where an ele­phant fits com­fort­ably, but the same could be said of Thana, whose firm is now be­ing run by a man half his age.

Thank­fully, we’re spared a long mono­logue spell­ing this out.

That’s what makes “Pop Aye” the think­ing per­son’s feel-good film of the sum­mer: Much is com­mu­ni­cated non­ver­bally (or, at most, with sparse di­a­logue). The pal­pa­ble bro­mance — if that’s even the right word for this in­ter­species re­la­tion­ship — is vis­i­ble in each trunk nuz­zle. Thana never smiles as widely as he does when peer­ing into Pop­eye’s large, dark eyes.

On their trek, they en­counter a hope­less drifter, Dee (Chai­wat Khumdee), and a weath­ered trans­gen­der sex worker, Jenny (Yukon­torn Sukki­jja), each of whom gives Thana some per­spec­tive on his own predica­ment. Thana’s at­tempts to con­nect are only partly suc­cess­ful. If he can get Dee to re­unite with his es­tranged wife, he be­lieves, maybe he can find a path back home for him­self. As Thana, Warakul­nukroh ra­di­ates a sense of un­adorned hu­man­ity, cou­pling a sense of be­ing lost with the de­sire to be of ser­vice.

There’s a great twist when Thana ar­rives at his un­cle’s house. Al­though it fits with the film’s over­all tone, the film’s fi­nal mo­ments tip the scale of sen­ti­men­tal­ity to­ward the sac­cha­rine, giv­ing “Pop Aye” a res­o­lu­tion that’s too tidy for the wildly ex­pan­sive jour­ney that came be­fore.

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